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Europe

Blair and Schröder Deny Plans for "Triumvirate" with Chirac

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and British Prime Minister Tony Blair met in Berlin on Thursday ahead of a three-way summit with France next week. They denied the formation of a leading "triumvirate" within the EU.

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We're not an exlusive club -- the leaders of Britain, Germany and France say there's no EU directorate.

Days after hosting French President Jacques Chirac in the German capital, Schröder's talks with the British premier aimed to pave the way for the upcoming summit with all three leaders next Wednesday.

The purpose of the upcoming French-British-German meeting is to coordinate positions for the EU's next summit, scheduled for March 25-26 in Brussels. The three leading countries of the European Union are hoping to present a common front as the bloc prepares to expand to 25 members in May. The EU draft constitution was derailed in December after Poland and Spain blocked attempts to bring voting rights more in line with each country's population.

Besides pushing to get the EU constitution back on track, Berlin and Paris hope London will add its clout to efforts to cap the EU budget. Schröder and Chirac this week said they were sticking with demands for a freeze on the EU budget until 2013. France, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden and Austria - all of which are net contributors to the EU, meaning they pay more in than they get back – made the budget freeze demand last December in an open letter.

No EU triumvirate

With such meetings becoming a regular occurance, many other EU countries, including Italy and Spain, have become increasingly suspicious of closer French-British-German cooperation, fearing the three countries will band together to impose their will on others.

However, both Schröder and Blair, speaking after their meeting, said that such concerns were unfounded.

Blair trifft Schröder, Berlin 2004

"This is not about trying to create a directoire in Europe at all," said Blair. "I think it's important that we try and work at these issues together and not exclude other countries," he added.

Iraq rift healed

The summit next week is also an attempt to show the rift caused by the war in Iraq has been sealed. Whereas France and Germany strongly opposed the U.S.-led campaign to oust Saddam Hussein, Britain was America's staunchest supporter.

After talking with Blair, Schröder made clear divisions over the case for war were a thing of the past. "We both believe it makes no sense to talk about history and discuss our different positions on the need for war, but instead both of us must help ensure that the process of democratization and reconstruction in Iraq succeeds," he said.

Topping the defense policy agenda will be U.S. proposals to get NATO more involved in stabilizing Iraq -- which both France and Germany are weary of -- and the transatlantic alliance's expanding role in peacekeeping in Afghanistan.

As a sign of the new three-way cooperation on defense matters, Germany said on Wednesday it would back Anglo-French plans for a European rapid-reaction force that could be sent to flashpoints around the world. The proposal calls for a force of 1,500 soldiers that could be deployed within 15 days.

The EU already has plans to set up a 60,000-strong unit that could be ready for action within 60 days and NATO wants to create a rapid-reaction force of 21,000 troops.

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