ADSTOCK, Que. - A federal election in the near future would undermine the "extremely fragile" economic recovery, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday.

The Conservative government and the Opposition Liberals are locked in a battle over employment insurance reform that could trigger an election this fall.

But, without mentioning the Liberals by name, Harper urged them Thursday to forget about politics and focus on the economy.

"Our first priority and the first priority of the Canadian people, in Quebec and everywhere else, is that Parliament deal with the economy," Harper said in Adstock, Que., as he announced a $225-million project to expand high-speed Internet to rural areas across Canada.

"We're still in the middle of a major global economic crisis, the biggest since the Second World War.

"I know there are some signs of optimism but the so-called recovery at this point is extremely fragile. It's based on governments continuing with co-ordinated worldwide fiscal and monetary stimulus.

"We do not need another round of political instability, another round of elections. We need Parliament to focus on the economy. That's what the government is doing and obviously that is what I would encourage the other parties to do as well."

A six-member panel made up of three Conservatives and three Liberals is looking at ways to reform the EI program.

The panel is to explore two issues: Harper's promise to extend EI benefits to self-employed workers and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's demand for a national standard for qualifying for EI.

Depending on local unemployment rates, a person must currently have worked from 420 to 700 hours before qualifying for EI benefits. Ignatieff has proposed a single national standard of 360 hours of work, which Harper has categorically rejected.

The panel has already met and will hold more meetings in August.

It is to report to Parliament by Sept. 28. Liberals have said they'll be prepared to bring down the government in a confidence vote if there is not sufficient movement to enhance EI.

Harper said Thursday his government would continue to work with the Liberals to find common ground on the contentious issue.

On the Internet announcement, the prime minister said it is crucial for rural Canadians to have the same access to information as urban residents.

"The Internet is no longer a mere perk," he said. "It is economically and socially indispensable. And our government is committed to ensuring no Canadian community gets left behind."

Harper was also asked about white-collar crime in the wake of fraud and theft charges laid this week against Montreal financial planner Earl Jones.

"Our government has been trying to strengthen the criminal justice system," the prime minister noted.

"I do hope that this debate will open everybody's eyes, that these crimes have real victims.

"They may be not be victims of violence, but they are real victims who are suffering real pain and we should have a criminal justice system that responds accordingly."