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Europe

EU Trumpets Energy Deal, Plays Down Discord

European Union leaders hailed an agreement on a new joint energy strategy Friday and played down discord on resurgent protectionism, but a sense of unity was palpably missing.

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The new EU joint energy strategy includes bolstering security of supplies

"We are on the right track in Europe -- trying to build Europe on concrete results," said European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso at a closing press conference in Brussels on Friday.

"The healthy thing about the debate is that, I think, it's being won by those in favor of more open markets," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair, adding: "The arguments are moving, in our view, in the right direction."

EU Gipfel in Brüssel Angela Merkel Polen

German Chancellor Merkel, center, with Polish leaders at the EU summit

The traditional EU spring summit was focused firmly on breathing new life into the bloc's so-called Lisbon Agenda, launched in the Portuguese capital in 2000 to make Europe the most competitive economy by the end of the decade.

Hope for calm agreement

But the strategy has struggled to make any difference in concrete terms: while the United States and Japan enjoy an economic resurgence, latest EU data put growth at a paltry 1.3 percent last year.

EU leaders, still reeling from political earthquakes last year when the bloc's first-ever constitution was rejected by French and Dutch voters, had hoped the Brussels summit would provide a chance for calm accord on economic strategy.

Energy deal amid protectionism row

E.ON will spanische Endesa für 29 Milliarden Euro übernehmen e.on

German energy giant E.ON had its eyes trained on Spanish energy company Endesa

But in the run-up to the meeting, tension built over alleged

protectionism in a string of cases including Spanish efforts to

block German energy giant E.ON's hostile takeover bid for Endesa, and French machinations to protect Suez from Italian group Enel.

Italy's Silvio Berlusconi even tried to rally support for a joint statement denouncing protectionism on the eve of the summit. But in Brussels itself he kept a low profile, and few others were willing to stick their necks out.

"There was not a confrontational debate," said Barroso.

The EU commission chief was visibly satisfied to have won support for plans to forge a new joint energy strategy: notably by bolstering security of supplies, hooking up Europe's grids and better exploiting renewable energy sources.

Alarm bells sounded in EU capitals in January after Europe was caught in the crossfire of a gas price war between Russia and Ukraine, leading to supply cuts which underlined the continent's dependence on its giant eastern neighbor.

"When we make the history of European integration we will say

that energy policy was born on March 23-24, 2006," said Barroso. "The conclusions are very, very important."

Action against Belarus

Another issue forced its way onto the summit agenda after new arrests in Minsk following last week's contested polls swept authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko into a third term in office.

President Alexander Lukashenko

Newly re-elected Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko

EU leaders agreed to implement new sanctions on the ex-Soviet state, including on Lukashenko himself.

"The European Council has decided to take restrictive measures against those responsible for the violations of international electoral standards, including President Lukashenko," Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, who currently holds the EU presidency, told reporters.

She added that the freezing of assets was a possibility, but that economic sanctions were not discussed.

Chirac miffed by use of English

But perhaps the most memorable moment in Brussels was when French President Chirac stormed out to protest a decision by fellow Frenchman Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, head of the European UNICE employers group, to speak English.

Der französische Staatspräsident Jacques Chirac äußert sich erstmals zu den Krawallen in Frankreich

French President Chirac doesn't like the sound of English

Chirac explained that he had been "deeply shocked." But his protest raised many eyebrows in Brussels, where English has increasingly overtaken the traditional dominance of the Gallic tongue in the EU corridors of power.

Other European leaders shrugged off Chirac's attempt to defend French pride.

"Europe has other worries and it's a waste of time to have to respond to such questions," said Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who is usually a staunch Francophile.

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