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Italy finds few takers for EU protectionism letter

Written by: Staff

BRUSSELS, Mar 22 (Reuters) Italy is trying to persuade free-marketeering European Union partners to sign a letter denouncing protectionism at the 25-nation bloc's summit this week but is finding few takers, diplomats said on Wednesday.

Italian Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti has circulated a draft calling for open markets and condemning economic nationalism in hopes of bolstering Rome's position in a row with France over a takeover battle for French utility Suez.

But the diplomats said only Britain was likely to sign the appeal while other free marketeers, including the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland, had politely declined.

Some said their governments did not want to be drawn into an initiative that seemed driven largely by the campaign for an April 8-9 general election in Italy.

Tremonti's office declined to comment.

A British official said there was not yet a final text of the letter and Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Gordon Brown had not signed anything, although London was on record as supporting the principle of open markets.

Denmark has also been asked to sign but has taken no decision, a diplomat said.

Diplomats who have seen the draft say it largely echoes recent denunciations of protectionism by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

Those were prompted by a spate of moves by France, Spain, Poland but also Italy to block cross-border takeovers in the energy and financial services sectors.

Diplomats said those governments that declined to sign had indicated they did not want to get into the business of open letters that could distract from the summit's official agenda of economic reform and a common energy policy.

But several said their governments did not want to be used in the Italian campaign, in which conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is fighting for political survival against a centre-left coalition led by former European Commission chief Romano Prodi.

''The official reason is that since we will be the next EU presidency, we don't want to be put into groups now, although we have no problem with the principles in the letter,'' a Finnish official said.

A Dutch official said: ''The letter was received in a positive way. We support the ideas but we decided not to sign.'' A Swedish diplomat said: ''Sweden will not be signing.'' REUTERS SD VC1938

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