Spain will use its presidency of the European Union next year to press for pro-business reforms despite expected resistance from other member states, notably France, Spain's foreign minister said yesterday. Josep Pique told Reuters in an interview that failure so far by EU leaders to agree to open up power markets and overhaul labour laws among other reforms had prevented Europe from spearheading global growth as the U.S. economy slowed. “We need to be a motor of world economic growth able to substitute the United States,” Pique said. “We have seen how the slowdown on the U.S. economy has not been compensated by sufficient dynamism by the European economy.” Centre-right Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has painted himself as a champion of structural reforms alongside his British counterpart Tony Blair. Pique said that other European countries were moving closer to their position, including the new government of billionaire businessman Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. “At this moment, the position of the Italian government is going in that direction and, I venture to say, so are some of the positions of the German government.” But France, which still favours largely state monopolies in its power markets and highly regulated labour laws, remained the big obstacle to major change in Europe. “France continues to be the most reticent country towards liberalisation,” Pique said, adding French parliamentary and presidential elections in 2002 made it even more unlikely that Paris would agree to potentially unpopular reforms. EU leaders agreed in Lisbon last year on the need for the kind of structural changes that economists say are needed to improve efficiency in Europe and narrow the gap between the battered single euro currency and the U.S. dollar. But a subsequent summit in Stockholm, during Sweden's turn as rotating president of the EU earlier this year, “did not produce enough continuity” to the Lisbon pledges, Pique said. Spain starts its six-month stint as EU president on January 1 and hosts the first of its two summits in Barcelona in March next year. As well as the expected showdown over economic reforms, the difficult issue of EU enlargement will be high on the agenda. Spain and Germany locked horns earlier this year after the Spanish government demanded recognition of its concerns that the entry into the EU of former Communist countries in Eastern Europe would cut its share of aid handouts from Brussels. Spain is currently the largest beneficiary of EU structural and cohesion funds and is due to receive about 56 billion euros ($50.27 billion) between 2000 and 2006, when the next round of aid is due to be negotiated by member states. By then, several Eastern European countries are likely to have joined the EU and, like Spain, will have veto powers over how the funds are shared out.

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