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‘Big Three’ seekto mend fences

Published on 16/02/2004

16 February 2004

BERLIN – A Franco-German-British summit to be held Wednesday is fuelling hopes that the European Union’s bitter divisions of past year can be healed – but also raising fears the “Big Three” are seeking to dominate the bloc.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are expected to use the meeting in Berlin to showcase a burying of differences over the Iraq war.

Iraq broke European Union (EU) unity with Britain playing a major role in military action (supported by among others Spain and Italy), while France and Germany opposed the war.

Angry that many of the 10 mainly east European nations due to join the EU backed war, Chirac one year ago made his now legendary statement they had “missed a good opportunity to shut up.”

The furious reaction to this remark, isolation over Iraq and realisation that power will be diluted when the EU expands to 25 members on 1 May seems to have convinced Schroeder and Chirac to seek British participation in the old Franco-German EU axis.

“As a tandem Berlin and Paris cannot shoulder Europe. ..,” said a commentary by Josef Joffe, publisher of the weekly German paper Die Zeit, adding that future EU states such as Poland would be far happier with Britain in a new leadership triangle.

Joffe warned, however, the Big Three were unlikely to remain closely allied for any length of time.

“Just like in any three-way affair, common love is swiftly shaken by a combination of two against one or by the departure of the third party,” said Joffe who is one of Germany’s top political analysts.

The one-day Berlin summit is formally aimed at reaching common economic and social reform positions and preparing for the EU’s 25 to 26 March summit.

Germany’s Handelsblatt business daily said the leaders plan to urge a more pro-industry policy from the European Commission.

The Commission – the EU’s executive – is a favourite whipping boy of Chancellor Schroeder who is angry over its attempts to tighten regulation of Germany’s chemicals sector and abolish the so-called Lex Volkswagen system of golden shares shielding carmaker VW from foreign takeover.

Germany and France last year bulldozed the Commission by winning a vote among eurozone finance ministers sparing them from massive fines despite overshooting budget deficit limits for what looks like at least three years in a row.

But it is precisely these strong-arm tactics which have raised alarm over the Big Three since the Berlin summit was announced late last year.

“A directorium comprised of several nations” would split Europe, warns Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.

Both Italy and Spain are upset at being excluded from the meeting – a move which confirms their medium-rank EU status.

Spain is still smarting from last December’s row with France and Germany when led to EU failure to agree a new constitution as the concluding event of the bloc’s 2003 anus horribilis.

Germany and France refused to back down from demands to cut the voting clout of Spain and future member Poland. But Madrid and Warsaw also dug in their heels and clung to their voting rights agreed three years ago.

Suspicion over the Berlin summit also runs deep among smaller EU members. The bloc’s smalls fiercely opposed demands by Germany and France that they give up their permanent members of the European Commission under the failed draft EU constitution.

Given such tensions, averting new EU divisions has become a prime concern of the Berlin summit. A big part of the message will no doubt be Schroeder, Chirac and Blair insisting they are not seeking to rule the EU.

“It’s important to realise this is not about trying to create some kind of directorium at all,” said Blair after talks in Berlin last week with Chancellor Schroeder.

Blair noted, however, that when the bloc expanded to 25 members not all countries would be able to work together to tackle problems.

The British leader cited the example of Iran last year where the foreign ministers of London, Paris and Berlin won a pledge from Teheran to open its nuclear programme to the United Nations in order to show it was not trying to build nuclear weapons.

Subject: German news