A flurry of pro-competitiveness rhetoric from European Commissioners at the very start of the rentree has seen Neelie Kroes insisting that "competition must drive European competitiveness in a global economy". Charlie McCreevy has defined the agenda for Europe in terms of "economy and competitiveness". And Janez Potocnik has emphasised the need for "more attractive conditions for companies to work, invest, research and innovate in Europe".

One of the recurring motifs in these outpourings has been the focus on open markets. "Protectionism is not the right response to economic reform challenges", said Ms Kroes. "Those who call for a retreat into protectionism are just whistling in the wind", according to Mr McCreevy.

Is the Commission determined to revive that fading Barroso vision, of a European Union geared towards prosperity through competitiveness-based growth in a globalising world? Is the liberalising spirit of the UK Presidency igniting new hope of resolving the paralysing conflicts between the proponents of competitiveness and the defenders of protectionism in the name of the social model?

Test cases loom on the near horizon for this fundamental EU debate: the next phase of the discussions on the contentious Services Directive, the Presidency's set-piece confrontation on the balance between Europe's economic and social objectives, and the deadline next month for member states to present...

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