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EU: The 'Big Three' Meet Amid Concerns For The Union's Cohesion

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The political leaders of Germany, France, and Britain meet in Berlin tomorrow for a summit which some say could mark a new direction for the European Union. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, President Jacques Chirac, and Prime Minister Tony Blair want to coordinate their policies across a wide front, but they deny they are trying to establish a "directoire" of the big three powers to dominate the union. The EU is going through a difficult moment, with the massive enlargement to the east about to begin and with its efforts to adopt a new constitution stalled. What does the summit really imply for the future of the union?

Prague, 17 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- To say that the leaders of the "Big Three" European powers are meeting in Berlin somehow reminds one of an earlier Europe. The terminology is reminiscent of a time when the most powerful nation states ruled the destiny of the continent, before the European Union submerged many nationalist perceptions.

However, the leaders of EU heavyweights Germany, France, and Britain are in fact holding a summit in the German capital tomorrow. And it's true that is causing some consternation among the smaller members of the union, who fear that a "directoire" (body of directors) of the "Big Three" is emerging, which will then try to play the boss in Europe.

“It would not be possible that, for example, the founding states create a European Union Number Two."
The comment by Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, reported in Italian media today, is typical. Frattini is quoted as saying that "Europe must grow with everyone taking part." And he says it's clear that "the summit in Berlin is born of national interests."

Certainly, some would see the moment as right for something like a directoire. The European Union has suffered a deep split in the past year over the war in Iraq. It has also failed to adopt a new constitution meant to give it a clear institutional framework. In addition, the massive eastward enlargement is now getting under way and is marked by a sense of nervousness among both old and new members. There are also disagreements on economic policy, and the union's executive arm, the European Commission -- which is, in any case, nearing the end of its term -- is weakened by events.

Of course, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, President Jacques Chirac, and Prime Minister Tony Blair dismiss the notion they are trying to form a directoire and say they are only keen to formulate common polices to help bring clarity to the EU's spring summit next month.

However -- as analyst Gabriel von Toggenburg of the European Academy in Bolzano, Italy, puts it -- that could amount to the same thing.

"This subject of a 'directorium,' as it is called in German, would be something which is de facto, something which is not legalized, something which exists in political reality, but which has no formalized feedback into the institutions or in secondary law -- which also means that there is nothing which can be done to prevent it. If the political cohesion between those three member states or other groups of member states is increasing, and makes sense for them, they can do that, within a certain legal framework respecting the principle of solidarity," von Toggenburg said.

Another analyst, Ingo Peters of the Free University in Berlin, says that even if an informal directoire were to be created, it need not be seen as wholly negative. He says EU members are long accustomed to having the so-called Franco-German "motor" of the union, and have always viewed it ambiguously. This "motor" has been seen positively in terms of providing political leadership, and negatively in terms of its potential to push smaller members in directions they do not want to go.

Peters says that to have a "troika" exercising the same function could have some advantages, in that it would encompass broader views. Given Britain's traditional coolness toward further European political integration, it would be -- for instance -- able to represent that viewpoint for other members.

"A segment of opinion could collect behind the British position in such a 'triple motor,' as you might call it, and thus be represented from the beginning. I'm thinking here of Poland, but also of some of the other new members that, especially in the foreign and security policy areas, traditionally tend toward the British position -- therefore, a [sort of] preliminary vote could ease the decision process. But it all depends on the amount of empathy which the three can bring to bear, so they do not give the impression of, and do not in fact follow, a policy with the character of [a] dictate," Peters said.

In Bolzano, analyst Toggenburg notes that whether or not the new EU constitution is adopted, there already exist possibilities for what is called "enhanced cooperation." That is the formalized, legal way for like-minded countries in the union to go forward in a particular direction of their choice without waiting for the others.

For instance, a group of members may want to go ahead with political and economic integration at a faster pace than others. Toggenburg says the expansion of the union will itself make use of this mechanism more probable. But a condition of enhanced cooperation is that it cannot put any form of disadvantage on those members, which are not joining in.

"What, in any case, one has to say -- and I think this is important in the current discussion -- is that [reverting to] a real 'hard-core' Europe, which is now being proposed and discussed, is legally impossible,” von Toggenburg said. “It would not be possible that, for example, the founding states create a European Union Number Two -- consisting of those six founding member states, or the [EU's] net payers, or whoever. Because there you would need the consensus of all the member states, because that would be a change of the EU treaties."

At the Berlin summit, the main part of the official agenda will revolve around economic topics. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw says the three countries will seek to agree to a blueprint for European economic reform that can then be put forward for adoption by the entire EU.

The summit is also expected to produce a plan on how the European Commission should be restructured to make it work more efficiently in an enlarged union. A wide range of foreign and security policy issues will also be discussed.