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EU warns markets must be kept open amid crisis

The European Union's top two officials warned countries not to shield their economies with protectionist measures, which would only worsen the financial crisis and risk unraveling the EU project.

business Updated: Feb 11, 2009 21:48 IST

The European Union's top two officials warned countries' on Wednesday not to shield their economies with protectionist measures, which would only worsen the financial crisis and risk unraveling the EU project.

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, who holds the EU presidency, announced two additional summits of the 27 government leaders over the next three months to tackle "the critical situation, unprecedented for many decades."

The leaders will discuss the economy, but Topolanek insisted they also need to make sure "certain xenophobic, protectionist and other reactions in some member states" do not start to undo EU cooperation. "It is a great challenge for the European project." European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso also warned vigorously against retrenchment and economic nationalism. "It is very tempting to draw back into your national protectionist quarters, to come out against workers rights, freedom of movement," Barroso said after meeting Topolanek. "We have to do battle against economic nationalism and internal domestic protectionism."

The strong appeal appeared to be a criticism and rejection of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's recent moves to shield French companies in wake of the crisis.

Over the past week Topolanek faced off against Sarkozy, who was accused of trying to shield his market with illegal subsidies and seeking to close foreign plants of French companies to maintain employment at home.

Topolanek said that as EU president he would make sure the EU's open-market rules are respected.

"The healing process is not about members going against the rules on which EU is based," he said. "Perhaps, this is surprising for some."

Barroso's EU executive commission is currently investigating a euro7.5 billion ($9.8 billion) French car bailout package, fearing it might include illegal competition-distorting measures. "We will need to scrutinize very carefully the details of the subsidies," Barroso warned. "We need to maintain the integrity of the single market which is the source of Europe's prosperity." French Prime Minister Francois Fillon will visit Barroso on Thursday to discuss the controversial plans.

In Britain, too, the recession has caused friction. Resentment over the employment of foreign workers at an oil refinery project in northeastern England sparked a series of wildcat strikes demanding local workers get priority over foreigners.

Barroso said he had a simple piece of advice for leaders at the upcoming summits.

"Don't try to go it alone because that would be tragic for Europe but also have tragic repercussions for you and your countries. If one country tries to go it alone others might decide to do likewise," he said.

Government leaders will meet a first time on March 1 in Brussels to discuss ways for pulling their economies out of the slump. A regular EU economic summit is scheduled for March 19-20 in Brussels. Topolanek said that another employment summit will then be held in Prague in May.