This week's controversies over the fate of the European Union's draft directive on services provoke reflections that go beyond the merits or demerits of the proposal itself.

In the year or so since it was launched, this measure has joined the list of the EU's emblematic battlegrounds between champions of liberalisation and champions of solidarity. But the proposal is hardly so clear-cut as to justify such contention. Crucially, imprecision still fogs several elements that are central to the debate: "services of general interest", for instance, lacks any common definition; the "country-of-origin" principle at the heart of the proposal is subject to uncertainties over how it should be applied; and there is confusion on the linked EU rules on posting of workers.

This imprecision obliges both sides in the debate to marshal their arguments selectively in order to maintain their momentum. The spectacle is reminiscent of opposing street gangs, spoiling for a fight, and ready to elevate any trifle into a casus belli, irrespective of its intrinsic character. This readiness to adopt entrenched, sometimes almost caricatured, positions does not augur well for the chances of any useful consensus emerging in the broader Lisbon debate ahead.

In these circumstances, the European Commission's acknowledgement that the proposal needs amendment might be viewed as a healthy response. But how that...

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