There was palpable relief among MEPs this week when, after months of spin, rhetoric and occasional hysterics on the pejoratively-dubbed Bolkestein Directive, they were finally able to vote on it in the lead committee.

The ambience was almost jovial in the Internal Market Committee during the marathon four-hour voting session on freeing up the EU market for services, despite the seriousness of the occasion, and the closeness of the eventual vote.

For despite their differences, all could at least agree that the European Commission's January 2004 proposal was riddled with uncertainties: it needed open-heart, rather than keyhole, surgery.

The right-wing EPP-ED/Liberal alliance was widely perceived to have prevailed on the day but their victory was not absolute, with the left notably managing to get health and audiovisual services excluded from the Directive.

Despite predictions of divisions along national rather than political group lines with the French most sceptical, and the new member states the most enthusiastic - in the end the left and right blocs more or less held firm.

The key question is whether this will remain the case at the plenary session in January. MEPs may well face much more rigorous arm-twisting from national governments at that point.

They will also be keenly aware of how this proposal - which has somehow broken free from the incestuous Brussels bubble and caught the wider public...

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