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'Big Three' European Nations to Hold Summit Amid Controversy - 2004-02-17

Europe's so-called "Big Three" countries - Germany, France and Britain - are holding a summit Wednesday in Berlin to seek a common line on how to strengthen the continent's economy and patch over differences stemming from the Iraq War. But, the meeting has raised fears that the three nations will seek to dominate the European Union, once it expands to 25 members in May.

The reactions to the summit have already been pouring in.

Italy, which likes to think of itself as one of Europe's leaders, has criticized the meeting as serving only what Foreign Minister Franco Frattini called the narrow interests of the three parties concerned, and not those of Europe as a whole. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was more direct, describing the attempt by the Big Three to join forces and set the European Union's agenda as "a big mess."

But his Danish colleague, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, says he has no problem with the Big Three getting together. And Pat Cox, the head of the European Parliament, said the summit could contribute to energizing the bloc at a time when it is still reeling from its failure to agree on a common constitution.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are expected to push for reforms aimed at stimulating economic growth and making social programs less costly and more efficient. German officials say they also want to end a deadlock over the European constitution, and find agreement on how large the EU's budget should be, as it opens its doors to new members.

One item on the summit's agenda has raised hackles at the European Commission, which runs the EU's day-to-day affairs. The Big Three nations want to restructure the commission, to focus its work on promoting the competitiveness of European industry. Some commission officials say that proposal treads on its turf, and could run into opposition from smaller countries that see the commission as their natural ally in resisting any attempts by big countries to impose their will on the rest of the bloc.

A leading member of the European Parliament, British Liberal Democrat Graham Watson, says the Big Three would have more influence, if they obeyed the Union's fiscal rules. Germany and France have consistently breached an EU requirement that they keep their public deficits under three percent of gross domestic product.