EU summit: Leaders to end credit crunch infighting with 'shoot-out'

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The Independent Online

Bickering EU leaders will attend an emergency "shoot-out" later this month to try to end the conflicting policies, fears of tit-for-tat protectionism – and exchanges of insults – generated by the economic crisis.

The Czech government, which holds the EU presidency, wants the 27 heads of state or government to discuss a unified approach to the global recession at a special summit in Brussels, probably on 25 February. The Czech prime minister yesterday described the planned meeting as a "shoot-out".

The main target of the shooting may be the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has managed to anger the British, Germans, Czechs and Slovaks in the space of a few days.

M. Sarkozy showed some signs of contrition yesterday. The Elysée Palace issued a statement expressing its "esteem" for Gordon Brown and blaming, unfairly, the British press for exaggerating M. Sarkozy's attack on the prime minister's response to the economic crisis last Thursday.

The French president has also annoyed the Czechs and Slovaks by suggesting French car companies should "repatriate" assembly plants in eastern Europe. He has clashed with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, by pushing for a common economic policy within the Eurozone, something Berlin has long resisted.

However, M. Sarkozy is not the sole source of the euro-bickering which threatens, according to some governments, to pull apart the European single market. Britain's anti-crisis response – especially Mr Brown's temporary VAT cut – has been criticised by Germany and the Netherlands. Several capitals, led by the French, have complained about the lack of urgency displayed by the Czech government, since it took over the EU presidency from M. Sarkozy in January.

At the request of Paris and Berlin – almost the only point on which the two capitals agree – Prague has now called an emergency one-day summit the week after next.

The Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek yesterday accused the 16 countries within the Eurozone of "deforming" their own rules by allowing state spending to rip, and by moving away from the principle of a single European market.

"Most of the states using the euro started breaking the common rules in their declarations as well as practical steps," he said on the official internet site of the Czech EU presidency.

"If the result of our shootout is an agreement... that we will not be using this type of media competition and that we will halt protectionism, then this shootout will have served its purpose."

President Sarkozy has angered east European countries, especially the Czechs, by implying he wants French car firms to remove their factories from the former Soviet bloc. Both the Czech Republic and Slovakia warned yesterday they would examine the protectionist implications of a €6bn cheap loan given by Paris this week to Renault and Peugeot-Citroën.

The French president took some steps yesterday however to mend fences with Gordon Brown. An Elysée statement claimed – absurdly – that his reported attack on UK government policy last week was concocted by the British press. In a 90-minute TV interview in prime time, M. Sarkozy said the two points cut in VAT in the UK had "brought absolutely no progress".

"If the English did this, it's because they don't have any industry any more, unlike France," he said. As Le Monde helpfully pointed out yesterday, Britain has a marginally higher industrial output than France.