Tens of thousands of protesters rallied on Tuesday against plans to throw open Europe's vast service sector to increased competition, as EU lawmakers hammered out the details ahead of a crunch vote.
Union organizers said 40,000 protesters took to the streets in Strasbourg, seat of the European Parliament, in the hope of influencing the vote to take place tomorrow, while police put the number at nearly 30,000.
"We are demonstrating for services for all the people and not just services for money," said John Monks, head of the European Confederation of Unions. "It's very important that this message goes to the European Parliament today."
Police clamped down on access to the parliament after a demonstration last month by dockers turned violent, injuring 64 police officers and causing nearly 400,000 euros of damage to the assembly's imposing headquarters here.
Inside, lawmakers battled to broker a consensus ahead of a vote that holds high stakes for the huge services sector, estimated to generate at least half the economic activity in the 25-nation EU and 60 percent of its jobs.
The EU's executive commission, which originally proposed the plans, says a shake-up is urgently needed to spur employment and growth in Europe's long-flagging economy.
The plans stirred up controversy last year when campaigners against the EU's draft constitution mainly in France seized on them as an example of Brussels dictating job-threatening pro-market policies.
The proposals stoked fears in older member states that a proposal known as the country-of-origin principle to let service providers operate in other member countries under the rules of their home country would provoke a flood of workers -- epitomized by Polish plumbers -- from newer, low-wage EU members undercutting local competitors.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso downplayed such concerns, telling deputies during a debate.
"While founded on legitimate fears, there are also misunderstandings," he said.
The new EU member states plus Britain, the Netherlands and Spain are in favor that the package include the country-of-origin principle while France and Germany are against.
The two biggest political groups in the parliament, the conservative European People's Party (EPP) and the Socialists, were struggling to broaden a fragile compromise they struck last week by watering down the most controversial parts of the plans.
Socialist group leader Martin Schulz was hopeful that the consensus could be widened in the countdown to tomorrow's vote so that a text based on the compromise between the two big left and right groups would be passed.
"We're pleased with the compromise we hammered out with the EPP and we hope it will achieve a majority in the plenary," Schulz told journalists.
Nevertheless, it was far from a foregone conclusion that the plans would win backing, with deep divisions remaining among lawmakers.
Green leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit warned that the compromise was too vague and that it was "bad legislation that will create jobs for the legal experts."
If the parliament gives the green light to the plans in a first reading, the package will then go to the European Commission and member states for review.
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