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European 'Big Three'  Mini Summit Sparks Controversy - 2004-02-20

The leaders of Germany, France and Britain, now reconciled after their differences last year over Iraq, are urging a fresh push to boost Europe's flagging economy, and the European Union's ability to make decisions when it expands to 25 members. But their mini-summit Wednesday in Berlin, has left some other EU countries with the feeling that they have been left out, and that the so-called Big Three are seeking to dictate policy.

France and Germany used to be the European Union's engine. If the two of them agreed, the rest of the EU usually went along with whatever they decided. But with 10 mostly central and eastern European countries, many of them with strong ties to the United States, entering the Union on May 1, that is no longer the case.

Analyst Steven Everts, at London's Center for European Reform, says the Franco-German axis is no longer as powerful as it was and, for that reason, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder invited Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, to join them in trying to set the EU's agenda.

"Both Chirac and Schroeder realize that the old way of running the EU is no longer viable, because we're going to have 10 very pro-American countries entering the EU and, in any event, also among the current 15 [members], this Franco-German pretense of leadership is much harder to accept," he said.

Mr. Everts says the failure of the EU to agree on a constitution for the bloc last December indicates just how hard it will be for the union to avoid decision gridlock when the new members join.

"It is true that decision-making is going to be harder," said Steven Everts. "There are more interests to reconcile. The national reflexes will grow further, so we are going to need more leadership in Europe."

But will the so-called Big Three be able to provide that leadership? And will other countries follow their recommendations? Italy's European Affairs Minister Rocco Buttiglione, expressing his government's dismay that it was not invited, says the Big Three do not and cannot represent Europe.

"Italy is a country that has an economy as large as that of the United Kingdom, as large as that of France," he said. "We pay more to the Union than the United Kingdom. We are a better commercial partner for the eastern states than at least one or two of the three meeting in Berlin."

Spain and EU newcomer Poland - two middle-sized countries - are also suspicious of any three-way directorate, and vow that they will not be pushed around.

But British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw denies that the Big Three are trying to dictate Europe's future.

"We have no proposals to establish what's called a directoire, or some kind of small executive," said Mr. Straw. "It would be unconstitutional for us to do so, impractical and counterproductive."

Manfred Goertemaker, a professor at Germany's Potsdam University, argues that there are pressing European economic and institutional questions that must be addressed now and that the Big Three are trying to respond to that challenge.

"The three powers really matter in Europe. Italy, Spain, other members are important," said Manfred Goertemaker. "But if it is possible to harmonize the policies of Britain, France and Germany, that will have a significant effect on the other members of Europe."

That sentiment is echoed by Philip Stevens, an associate editor of Britain's Financial Times newspaper.

"I think that the assumption that is being made is that these Big Three agree on everything already, and they don't," he said. "It's perfectly clear over Iraq, over foreign policy attitudes towards the United States of America and on domestic issues like the financing of the EU budget and agricultural reform. These countries have a lot to hammer out among themselves. So, I think it's reasonable and rational for the three of them to say, look, let's see if we can find common ground, and then take that to the rest of the Union. And quite frankly, if everything is debated at 25, then the European Union is going nowhere very fast."

The three leaders agreed that, if Europe is to fulfill its ambition to rival the economic might of the United States by 2010, as outlined at an EU summit in Lisbon four years ago, it had better start slashing red tape, spur research on new technologies and find ways to keep people working. In a letter that will be discussed at an EU summit next month, they warned that such reforms are vital, because Europe's population is aging fast, and that threatens to push welfare and pension costs sky high.

Mr. Blair says what is good for the Big Three is also good for the rest of Europe.

"We know that, out there, people in Europe are worried about insecurity," said Tony Blair. "They're worried about a lack of job opportunities. They're worried about the consequences of globalization. And our discussion on economic reform is an attempt to say, both to our own countries, but also to Europe as a whole, there are real changes we have to make in order to equip our citizens for this world of change."

The three leaders called for the appointment of a new EU super-commissioner to push member states to make those reforms, even if it means cutting back on Europe's generous health and welfare systems.

But one American observer, Wall Street Journal-Europe editor Frederick Kempe, is skeptical about how much the mini-summit accomplished.

There is still this quaint notion among many people in Europe that you can have a summit, and that's going to create growth," said Frederick Kempe. "Or, that you can write a letter, and that's going to create jobs. Or, you can add a new commissioner, and that, somehow, is going to make people do the right thing. I think the real problem is that the Lisbon goals haven't been met, and that they're not anywhere near what they want to achieve by 2010."

Mr. Kempe says Europe's main problem is a resistance in most countries to relax rigid labor rules, liberalize markets, discourage early retirement and end bureaucratic hurdles to launching new businesses.