Europe's big three

Posted in Europe | 20-Feb-04 | Source: International Herald Tribune

The meeting of the leaders of Britain, France and Germany on Wednesday was guaranteed to get other Europeans grumbling anxiously about a "big three" directorate. The fears are understandable, especially with the approach of the expansion of the EU, and it was right for six nervous European prime ministers to issue a joint statement effectively reminding Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder that they have no monopoly on EU policy-making.

That said, there is nothing wrong in a separate get-together of the three, especially after the bitter disputes over Iraq. In fact, it is critical for the heads of Europe's three biggest economies to be talking. What is important is that Blair, Chirac and Schröder come up with concrete ideas in advance of the next EU summit meeting on March 25 about getting Europe over some of the toughest times in its history and delivering real benefits to the people of Europe. And it is equally important that they present their decisions in a way that does not rouse new anxieties, in Europe or the United States, and avoids any talk of a "two-speed Europe" or patronizing lectures to new members.

The conventional wisdom about the big three is that the French-German "motor" is no longer powerful enough to drive European integration and needs the added horsepower of Britain. So Blair's trip to Berlin should be good news for all Europeans, all the more so since Britain, a trusted friend of many new entrants and Europe's leading Atlanticist, will temper French-German tendencies to go it alone. It should also be welcomed by Washington, which will be less suspicious of French and German intentions for Europe if America's British ally is in on their talks.

In the end, though, the main reason why the trilateral meeting makes sense is that unless Britain, France and Germany see eye to eye, little gets done in the EU. When they do pull together, they can often achieve more, and more quickly, than the cumbersome bureaucratic beast of Brussels in full battle armor. Recent examples of trilateral success include the mission to Tehran last year that persuaded Iran to allow inspection of its nuclear program, and burgeoning defense cooperation, notably the agreement last week by Germany to join the Franco-British plan for rapid reaction forces.

Such cooperation, of course, can easily strain the nerves of those left out; hence the warning letter from Italy, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Estonia. But fears of a trilateral directorate are exaggerated; Britain, France and Germany have very differing national agendas, and the three men are hardly bosom buddies, however chummy they may try to appear over their beer and würst.

The greater fear is that their separate ambitions will deflect them from the responsibility they bear for all Europe. The EU on the eve of enlargement is a fragile thing, as demonstrated by the debacle in December over the Union's draft constitution. A compromise proposed by Blair, Chirac and Schröder - or even just an agreement to compromise - could go along way toward solving the constitution wrangle; bulldozing by the big three, on the other hand, could do enormous damage to Europe's big house.

The most promising thing about the Berlin meeting is that social and economic reform is high on the agenda. The EU has worked so far, most of the time, because it is an economic union; and globalization's success stories worldwide show that economic progress is the best recipe for stability. Settling on the best ways to tackle unemployment, social security and health care, and to improve the business environment, would not only help Europe through its current rough patch, but also give Europeans some evidence that the EU is not such a bad thing.