'Big three' fend off charges of EU power grab at summit

The British, French and German premiers brushed off claims last night that they are trying to dominate EU decision-making, using a three-way summit to issue a blunt call for Europe to accelerate economic reform.

The three leaders in Berlin signed a document calling for a new European Commissioner to be appointed to supervise economic reform. Jacques Chirac, the French President, called for a shake-up of competition policy to allow industrial giants - European "champions" - to emerge. But the meeting was overshadowed by the fierce reaction from excluded countries, including Italy and Spain, which have accused the "gang of three" of trying to make a power grab.

The British, French and German leaders gave short shrift to Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian premier, who had dismissed the Berlin meeting as a "mess" even before it began.

M. Chirac said it was "completely natural" for the three countries, which produced more than half the EU's gross national product, to meet together. He said: "I do not understand the substance of this criticism."

Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, argued that the three nations "are not trying to dominate anybody, let alone Europe" and Tony Blair praised the fact that the countries had come together "after a very difficult period in international relations", prompted by the war in Iraq. Mr Blair said that an agreement to reform the economies of Britain, France and Germany was "good for the three countries and good for the whole of Europe". The very fact that yesterday's meeting took place - the second of its kind since September - illustrates Mr Blair's success in exerting greater influence in Europe following last year's catastrophic row over Iraq.

But M. Chirac made clear that the new "triumvirate" would not rival the "intense relationship" between France and Germany, saying that comparisons between the two were "inappropriate". He added: "Everyone knows that the Franco-German relationship is very specific. It is not something you could transpose or export in the short term."

Questions remain as to whether the new triangle will prove durable. One early test was the issue - discussed privately last night - of who should be the next president of the European Commission, as the three nations struggled to agree on the same candidate. Germany is pushing for Wolfgang Schüssel, the Austrian Chancellor, or Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg premier, though no decision needs to be taken until June.

Even yesterday's meeting illustrated the different emphasis in the type of economic reform pioneered by France and Britain. M. Chirac's call for the creation of national "champions", and his stress on big spending projects, such as the satellite navigation system, Galileo, jarred with British officials.

Next year the EU will have to determine the budget for the next round of spending from 2007-13. So far, Britain, France and Germany have taken a common position, demanding a freeze in spending in terms of percentages of gross domestic income. But such unanimity is unlikely to survive discussions on the future of the British budget rebate: the annual €3bn (£2bn) compensation which Britain alone receives because it pays a great deal more into the EU than it receives back.

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