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EU summit produces plans to bolster currency zone, but fear still stalks the eurozone. Hungary takes over EU hot seat amid concerns over media freedom. Google this: EU trust busters probe the world’s search engine. Plus, obesity report suggests Britain is the fat man of Europe.
Top news: The crisis of confidence that has hung over the euro for most of 2010 continued to dominate news in the European Union through December as EU leaders struggled to find solutions that would allay the fears that one or several eurozone nations may default on repayments of their huge sovereign debts.
At a Dec. 16-17 summit, EU leaders agreed to set up a permanent mechanism to provide support to keep debt-ridden eurozone nations afloat after the expiry in 2012 of the $1 trillion emergency fund set up after Greece became the first member of the currency bloc to teeter on the edge of bankruptcy in the spring. The summit had a brief calming effect on the markets in the run up to Christmas, but fears remain that Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal will come under renewed pressure in the New Year.
The summit refused to increase the current emergency bailout funding and France and Germany united to reject a call for euro-bonds that would be issued by all 16 members of the eurozone, reducing the pressure on troubled individual nations.
Instead, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said they would present proposals for closer coordination of European economic governance to minimize future policy divergence within the eurozone. Uncertainty remains over what form that closer policy setting will take, with many nations jealously defensive of their rights to set tax-and-spending policies without EU interference.
Belgium, which has not had a fully functioning government since elections in June, and Italy, where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in parliament, were forced to downplay concern that they could be the next targets of the jittery bond markets.
Although Estonia is set to become the 17th nation to join the eurozone on Jan. 1, there was a spate of speculative reports about whether the single currency would survive 2011. Most concluded that despite the likelihood of more frights next year, the currency will pull through.
Also on Jan. 1, Hungary will take on the EU’s rotating presidency for the first time since joining the bloc in 2004. The 27 EU nations take turns in holding the presidency for six months. The job has lost some of its luster since the Lisbon Treaty, which came into force a year ago, gave chairmanship of EU summits and foreign minister meetings to newly appointed permanent officials in Brussels. But the rotating presidency still gets to set the agenda on issues from immigration to climate change and agricultural subsidies — thrusting the country that holds it into the European media spotlight.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban may have hoped for a little less media coverage after facing widespread criticism for a law passed in December that gives his government new powers to monitor and penalize the press.
Looking further to the southeast, the EU’s two newest members, Romania and Bulgaria, ran into opposition to their entry into the so-called Schengen Zone, which allows for passport-free travel among member nations. Elsewhere in the Balkans, Montenegro was given EU candidate status although it and neighboring nations were warned that eventual membership in the union will depend on action against high-level corruption.
Money: Aside from the euro’s debt crisis, the month’s big business story from Brussels concerned the decision by EU antitrust authorities to launch an investigation into Google in response to complaints from rival search service providers.
The complaints are centered on allegations that Google abuses a dominant position on the market by tweaking its search results to favor its own services. It also faces allegations of unfair restrictions on advertising partners. Google denies the claims and the European Commission has stressed that the start of an investigation does not imply guilt. However the Commission has a record of not pulling its punches when taking on high-profile international companies and Google shares took a hit on the announcement of the probe.
Elsewhere:As Europeans prepared to tuck into Christmas feasts, there was some unwelcome news in a new report that showed that half of the EU’s adults are overweight.
Published by the European Commission and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the report found a record 50.1 percent of Europeans are overweight, with 15.5 percent classified as obese.
Although that’s well below the U.S. obesity rate of 26.7 percent, the report showed that several EU nations were close to eating their way to equality with Americans.
Lithuania, Malta, Ireland, Luxembourg and Britain all recorded obesity rates higher than 20 percent, with the Brits showing up as the widest at 24.5 percent. It’s enough to make anyone look askance at their Christmas pudding with brandy butter.