This WEEK in the European Union
By Honor Mahony
Business will tick over as usual in Brussels but much of the discrete political focus will be on two important elections at the end of the week - in France and in Greece.
Next Sunday (6 May), French voters will head to the polls for the second round of presidential elections. They will decide if they want to entrust the running of the country for the next five years once more to Nicolas Sarkozy or elevate Francois Hollande, the socialist contender, to the post.
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Hollande won the first round and polls suggest he will win the second round too. The economy has been the main topic of the political campaigning. Sarkozy has also indicated he wants to reform the EU's borderless system schengen and make Europe more protectionist. Hollande's main European theme has been renegotiation of the German-pushed fiscal discipline treaty to include more growth-related clauses.
To date the term 'renegotiation' has remained largely open to interpretation, with Hollande suggesting he is willing to compromise. For her part, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself facing an important regional election in the country's most populous state later in May, said the budget-balancing treaty is not up for negotiation.
Greek voters will head to the polls on the same day. The debt-ridden country has been run by a technocratic government led ex-European-Central-Bank official Lucas Papademos for the past five months following the resignation of George Papandreou.
It will be the first election in Greece since the start of the crisis, which has seen the country undergo harsh austerity measures in return for two EU-International-Monetary-Fund loans. With unemployment at almost 20 percent and more spending cuts to come, the European Commission has sought assurances from political parties that they will stick to the austerity programme no matter who gets into office.
The conservative New Democracy party and the socialist Pasok party - currently in an uneasy coalition - have dominated the political landscape in Greece for decades. New Democracy leader, Antonis Samaras, is leading in the polls but with a population weary of all the spending cuts and tax raises, fringe parties on the left and the right may do better than in the past. The far-right neo-facist New Dawn party, running on an anti-foreigner and anti-austerity ticket, could break the three percent threshold to make it into parliament.
EU finance ministers will meet in Brussels next week, with Spain's economic situation likely to dominate informal talks.
The country's borrowing costs are reaching bailout territory but the eurozone is unable - politically or economically - to deal with a Spain that goes the same way as Greece, Ireland and Portugal. German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung suggested Thursday that some EU officials are considering letting Spanish banks borrow directly from eurozone aid funds without going through the government first.
However, the idea - stemming from concern that due to recession Spain's banks may be in worse trouble than had been thought - is likely to be strongly opposed by paymaster Germany.
Chinese Vice-Prime-Minister Li Keqiang will be in Brussels on Thursday. He is due to formally kick off a series of high level talks on energy between the EU and China at a meeting with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. The meeting follows Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's visit to Europe in the last week of April, which culminated in a pledge of a 10 billion US dollar credit line of credit to help support projects with central and eastern Europe.