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Controversial EU ‘big three’ summit underway

BERLIN, Feb 18 (AFP) – Battered by critics, the leaders of Britain, France and Germany prepared for a three-way summit Wednesday which they say will help make the European Union more competitive and less unwieldy.

The talks in Berlin come at a critical time for the bloc as it prepares to welcome 10 new members, an expansion its three biggest nations fear will only bog down an already cumbersome institution.

Despite efforts to stress its informality, the summit has been overshadowed by a welter of criticism that the leaders are creating an EU “directorate.”

Not so, insist their officials.

The German government said such criticism was “unjustified,” while British Home Secretary Jack Straw said he had assured his counterparts in Italy, Poland and Spain that this was no power grab.

“We have no proposals to establish a directoire or small executive,” Straw briefed reporters. “It would be unconstitutional for us to do so, impractical and counter-productive.”

Straw said it made sense for the three biggest economies to discuss issues of common interest, saying that while they cannot impose their will on others, “if we can reach a common understanding it is more likely that will be shared across Europe.”

Hosted by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the summit involves British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac.

Each was also bringing four or five cabinet ministers, including those for health, trade and industry, social and labour and in Chirac’s case, his prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

The meeting was focused on spurring economic growth, innovation and social and labour market reforms.

Officials say it is a “brainstorming” session to exchange ideas and debate “best practices” with the aim of providing proposals to the next EU summit in March.

At a subsequent dinner, joined by their foreign ministers, the leaders were to discuss international issues ranging from Iraq and Afghanistan to a common EU defence policy and the bloc’s first constitution.

Officials say the three countries want to refocus the work of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, and the way it operates, which one German official called “not always coherent.”

Their aim is to make Europe “the most competitive region of the world.”

Schroeder has floated the idea of a “super-commissioner,” whose task would be to oversee the separate portfolios of industry, competition, research, the internal market and the environment.

The leaders were also expected to draft a letter to the Irish EU presidency calling for attractive EU-wide patent regulations, less industry red tape and better access to risk capital for companies branching out into new areas.

German newspaper reports here also suggest the three men would discuss the future make-up of the European Commission when it is renewed later this year, including who should replace its president, Romano Prodi.

The daily Die Welt said Germany would not put forward its own candidate to replace Prodi, but push for a German as the touted “super-commissioner.”

Quite how any proposals would go down with nations piqued at being left on the outside is unclear.

Among those which have expressed their unhappiness are Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.

Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio warned the summit participants not to “cement positions which, one way or another, are then strongly recommended, if not imposed, on others.”

However, she said it would be good if they could bring closer a compromise to end a damaging wrangle over EU voting rights that has delayed agreement on the constitution.

The European Union’s biggest incoming member Poland meanwhile said it was surprised at the fuss surrounding a three-way summit.

“I am very surprised by the concerns expressed about this meeting,” Poland’s European Affairs Minister Danuta Huebner, who will shadow the EU’s trade commissioner Pascal Lamy at the EU executive, told AFP.

“Simply by their potential and size, these countries have a particular role to play in the EU,” foreign ministry spokesman Boguslaw Majewski told AFP.

“We see nothing wrong in this meeting, of which we will closely analyse the results,” he said.


                                                              Subject: France news