* Ministers agree to weaken proposed fuel targets for vans
* Germany fought to make goal easier for its automakers
* Sweden says outcome bad for small businesses across EU
(Adds Hedegaard quote)
By Pete Harrison
BRUSSELS, Dec 20 Europe set itself new fuel-efficiency targets for vans on Monday, aiming to cut fuel bills for small businesses and curb emissions of gases blamed for climate change.
The move plugs a gap that was left when Europe agreed some of the world's most ambitious efficiency targets for cars in 2008, forcing Asian manufacturers to follow suit in what many see as a global technological revolution. [ID:nLDE6A928N]
Berlin initially resisted the measures for vans, forcing a weakening of the strategy to make it easier for its big automakers Mercedes (DAIGn.DE) and Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE).
Environment ministers meeting in Brussels endorsed a deal to cut carbon dioxide emissions from vans by around 14 percent to an average of 175 grams per kilometre by 2017.
That target was barely contested by auto-making nations, given rapid recent gains in efficiency by van makers -- 15 percent by Renault's (RENA.PA) Master van and 13 percent by Mercedes' new Sprinter van.
The European Commission, which drafts EU laws, had proposed a much tougher target for 2020 of 135 grams per kilometre, but that proved more contentious.
Ministers agreed on Monday to soften that goal to 147 grams, although some countries said they were disappointed at having to concede to Germany on a measure that would help small businesses cut their fuel bills throughout the EU.
"The EU's competitiveness will not be strengthened if we weaken environmental policy," said Swedish ambassador Jan Olsson. "Consumers and medium sized enterprises would benefit from vehicles that need less fuel."
His comments echo suspicion among many Brussels politicians that auto-making nations France, Germany and Italy have been too successful in lobbying to weaken the EU fuel standards, most notably for cars in 2008.
Many car makers, especially Japanese marques, now look set to achieve their 2015 targets several years early. [ID:nLDE6A1155]
"The automotive industry, which has benefited from billions of euros of taxpayers' money in subsidies, low interest loans and research grants has once again bullied politicians into getting an easy ride," said campaigner Kerstin Meyer at green transport group T&E.
Germany's environment minister said he thought a good compromise had been reached for all sides.
"It achieves substantial CO2 reductions, to my knowledge 27 percent," Norbert Roettgen told EU ministers. "It is feasible, it is a technological challenge, but it keeps us in a leadership position."
EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard welcomed the deal, saying it would help promote innovation and curb emissions.
"We have got things definitely more ambitious than what the industry claimed they could do," she told reporters afterwards.
"We should always take care to push industry just a bit more than they want to be pushed," she told reporters. "We have seen from (emissions from) cars that they can do better than they claimed." (Reporting by Pete Harrison and Ilona Wissenbach)