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EU leaders hold extra economic summit

Leaders hope Sunday's talks in Brussels will be a step toward coordinated action.

BRUSSELS — European Union leaders are spending an unusual amount of time together, with two extra summits scheduled to address the global financial crisis.

The Czech government — which is in the midst of its six-month turn as head of the European Union — has added two “informal” head-of-state gatherings to the two regular summits held during each six-month period, making for two Brussels summits in the next three weeks. In addition, last weekend the German government hosted the European members of the G20 (Britain, France, Germany and Italy plus special invitees Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and the Czech presidency). That group will gather again at an April meeting in London.

In spite of all the meetings, many observers say the divisions revealed by the economic difficulties pose the most troubling challenge to European unity in decades.

Discomfort over the looming specter of protectionism in western Europe prompted the Czech presidency to add a March 1 economic summit. The Czechs also felt pressure from France and Germany for an early meeting to lay the groundwork for the scheduled March 18-19 summit. Another extra meeting expected in May should focus more specifically on employment issues.

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek had more than altruistic reasons to tackle the rifts. In addition to announcing a new 6 billion euro ($7.6 billion) aid plan for French automakers, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had recommended the companies close down factories in the Czech Republic to make sure French workers remain employed. The move raised both hackles and questions about a violation of EU common market rules.

“Some member states call for more protectionism; others call for adherence to rules,” Topolanek said upon announcing the summits, in a thinly veiled jab at Sarkozy.

But the French aren’t the only western Europeans to consider unusual economic measures. Italy and Spain have also  announced assistance programs for their carmakers. Bitterness in eastern and central European members over actions like these — which they largely cannot afford to duplicate — has led European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to plead for community-minded conduct. He has repeatedly condemned the “go-it-alone approach” and recently added more urgency to his rhetoric: “We could lose the greatest single asset we have in the fight against recession: the single market.”

But newer member states aren’t betting on Barroso's message. Leaders from countries that were not invited to the Europe G20 summit in Berlin were angered by the short guest list for discussions on topics that affect them all. So Poland spearheaded the organization of a “mini-summit” of nine eastern and central European leaders this Sunday to coordinate the countries’ input into the 27-member meeting that will take place immediately afterwards.