Britain wins French concession on energy ahead of Barcelona summit

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Indy Politics

Britain may have to settle for only "half a loaf" when European Union leaders hold a summit on economic reform in Barcelona on Friday.

Ministers want France to agree to swifter progress on liberalising its energy markets but forthcoming elections mean the French government will make only limited concessions to EU partners who want to sweep away obstacles to the single market.

Last year Tony Blair described the meeting, at which EU leaders will discuss reforms in areas including financial services, labour market flexibility and e-commerce, as a "make-or-break" event which would influence the debate on joining the single currency. British officials are now playing down the prospect of a major breakthrough.

France is likely to agree to a "halfway house" plan to open up its gas and electricity market to competition from companies in other EU countries. The moves would apply only to industrial customers.

The Prime Minister is expected to argue that the EU is on track to create 20 million jobs by 2010. He will state that the economic debate in Europe is moving decisively towards Britain's policy of deregulation and reform.

One British source said: "There is a limit to what we can achieve four weeks before a closely-fought French election. The important thing is to maintain momentum." Ministers hope France will act once the elections are over, arguing that it would be counter-productive to press the case too strongly at this week's summit.

Last night Conservatives sought to adopt a softer tone on Europe. In his first speech as shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Ancram sought to reposition the party as "constructive Europeans working within a Europe of sovereign states", and said Britain's role was to bring Europe and America closer. He added: "We believe that influence comes not from coercion or centralisation, or from hang-ups about single currencies, common foreign policies or European armies, but from co-operation and mutual understanding."