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Europe

Europe's Budding Ménage à Trois

The leaders of Britain, France and Germany meet in Berlin on Wednesday to push for further European economic cooperation. But others in the EU fear the trio are trying to run Europe.

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Two's company, but three is certainly not a crowd, Tony.

A year after the men were at odds over the war in Iraq, the leaders of Europe's big three have been working hard at rapprochement these days. The most visible sign of that new spirit has been an agreement on a common European defense policy reached last December.

"That's an outstanding event that cannot be overestimated," German Chancellor Schröder told reporters at the time. This common defense policy and the recent announcement to establish rapid response forces have laid the foundation for an EU "core group."

British Premier Tony Blair might dispute the existence of such a trilateral EU directorate. But fearing to be side-stepped in an expanded European Union, Blair has effectively joined Germany and France as the bloc's driving force. "I strongly believe that Britain should play a leading role in the center of Europe and not stand aside," he said.

Many of the union's smaller member states are sceptical about the increased trilateral cooperation. Blair doesn't think that's a problem though: The British leader sees himself as the spokesman for new members, who are pro-British and pro-American, in his opinion. "Many states that are now entering the union share the British vision for Europe," he said.

Moving ahead after constitution talks fail

Failure to reach a compromise on a proposed EU constitution last December prompted Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac to moot the possibility of turning the EU's Franco-German-led engine into a group of pioneers willing to push ahead with further unification.

Frankfurt bekommt in der Silvesternacht ein Euro-Denkmal

The euro monument is illuminated in front of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt.

"This means that these countries will move ahead, just as has already happened with the euro or the Schengen agreement," Chirac said, referring to the abolishment of border controls between most EU countries.

Although Belgium, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Greece have expressed interest in joining a leading group, Italy, Spain and Poland oppose making distinctions within the bloc.

"Europe doesn't need a directorate, that would only mess things up," Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said on Tuesday. "That's my opinion, which is shared by other European states except the three in question."

A Europe of different speeds

Schröder, on the other hand, believes that a Europe of different speeds will become inevitable should the negotiations over an EU constitution fail for good. "Germany is willing to enter what's called closer cooperation with France, Britain and other EU members," the chancellor said. "There's no question about it."

Schröder, who has worked closely with the conservative Chirac, is glad to see Blair, a fellow social democrat, come aboard. And according to Schröder, the only way to ensure an effective foreign and security policy for the union is to have Britain in a leading group.

Driving or deciding Europe's future unification?

Back in 1998, when Joschka Fischer took on the job of German foreign minister, he still warned against making Britain a part of the Franco-German EU engine: Britain hadn't accepted the EU's common currency and was opposed to closer cooperation, Fischer explained at the time.

EU-Regierungskonferenz in Rom

The EU family is getting a lot bigger in May.

But now, the troika might push along the unwieldy union with 25 member states and guarantee desperately needed leadership. That's the optimistic view. Pessimists see things differently. First, France and Germany suspended the euro zone's stability pact, together with Britain they will now try to affix their seal on the union's foreign and economic policy, they say. Indeed, Blair, Chirac and Schröder plan to write a critical letter to the European Commission on Wednesday, demanding significant changes to the bloc's investment program, which is scheduled for adoption at a summit at the end of March.

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