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‘Big Three’ meeting could split EU

18 February 2004

BERLIN – Leaders of Germany, France and Britain hold a summit Wednesday in Berlin amid concern among other European Union members that the Big Three are making a power grab to dominate the soon-to-be 25 member bloc.

Apart from discussing future moves in the European Union , German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair hope to lay aside divisions caused by the Iraq war and to talk up Europe’s fragile economy.

Accompanied by a big team of cabinet ministers, the leaders will debate economic reforms and then hold a news briefing before moving to private talks which the German hosts stress will not be followed by any joint press conference.

Issues over dinner in the sprawling chancellery on the Spree River include attempts to agree an EU constitution after failure of last December’s Brussels summit; choosing the next president of the European Commission who will be named at the bloc’s June summit; and, demands by all three leaders to freeze the EU’s 2007 to 2013 budget.

Exclusion of other EU leaders and apparent secrecy of the sensitive part of the summit has angered other governments and sparked concern that Berlin, Paris and London want to dominate decision-making.

Italy has spearheaded criticism, with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi describing the summit as “a big mess-up.”

“Europe doesn’t need any directorium,” declared Berlusconi in remarks to reporters in Rome.

While other leaders of 15 member EU – which is due to take in 10 mainly east European states on 1 May – have not been so outspoken, Berlusconi insisted he had their support.

“In Europe, everyone except the three governments involved share, my opinion,” the Italian leader said.

Poland’s minister for European affairs, Danuta Huebner, was also critical, saying: “It’s always better to meet at the same table.”

But a top German official rejected allegations of an EU directorate as “utterly absurd.”

Nevertheless, Germany and France have been widely recognised as the EU motor since the 1957 Treaty of Rome created the bloc with many commentators now noting the duo seems to realise it cannot steer an expanded EU of 25 members.

This was underlined after France and Germany split the Union with their strong opposition to the Iraq war last year. While the European public was broadly anti-war, other governments including Britain, Italy, Spain and most of the east European applicants backed the US in the conflict.

As a commentary in Dresden’s Neueste Nachrichten paper noted, what critics of the Big Three’s Berlin meeting overlook is that its prime goal is symbolic: to overcome bitter EU divisions caused by the war.

Beyond this symbolic patching up of ties, all three leaders are coming to summit with differing needs – and all three have been badly weakened by domestic political events.

Germany’s Schroeder, who is battling his own Social Democratic Party over reforms vital to restore Europe’s biggest economy, wants an EU seal of approval for liberalisation to strengthen his hand.

Schroeder also wants to upgrade Berlin’s international standing and improve ties with the US which were chilled due to German opposition to the Iraq war.

Tension over Iraq may have faded, but only 12 months ago the US media was filled with reports of Germany and France heading an “Axis of Weasels” and Washington was highlighting what it dubbed “old” and “new” Europe.

Anointing Britain’s Blair as part of the EU leadership circle is seen in Berlin as spotlighting German determination to upgrade transatlantic ties before Schroeder visits the White House for talks with US President George W. Bush next week.

Blair is seeking both to re-establish Britain’s EU credibility and to take advantage of the sickly economies in both Germany and France to push market economy reforms for the entire bloc.

But given close British ties to many future EU members, Blair is expected to be very blunt in rejecting any talk of creating a new EU ruling body.

“It’s not a case of either trying to identify issues which they can discuss as three, or work together as 25,” said Blair’s official spokesman in London.

“It’s a question of shaping your approach so that where there are issues that can be thought through, and the beginnings of solutions identified by the three, so you can do that, but equally knowing you have to work with other allies such as Spain, Italy or Poland and the smaller countries as well,” he said.

France’s Chirac is keen to the use the meeting to put the Iraq war behind him given that Paris was the prime target of US anger over the anti-war stance among allies.


Subject: German news