Chirac represents Germany at EU summit, setting alarm bells ringing at Number 10

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The Independent Online

The French President, Jacques Chirac, is to represent Germany and France at an EU summit, a symbolic gesture which underlines the reinvigorated Franco-German alliance.

With the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, and his Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, needed in Berlin for a crucial parliamentary vote, M. Chirac will defend the interests of Germany at tomorrow's final summit session.

Mr Schröder and Mr Fischer will attend meetings today about the new EU constitution, before flying to Berlin tonight to face a parliamentary rebellion over labour market reforms. M. Chirac will represent them on the last day of the summit.

Although the move will have little practical impact, it was welcomed yesterday by the European Commission president, Romano Prodi, who said it was an example of national interests being set aside. But the gesture set alarm bells ringing in other capitals. Conscious that Britain enjoys more influence when France and Germany are out of sync, Tony Blair's spokesman sought to play down the importance of the development, saying: "What it underlines is that this summit is not a decision-making summit."

Other diplomats interpreted the initiative as an implicit threat to recreate a new "inner core" to Europe, if the nations about to join the EU next year prove troublesome.

France and Germany say they want to adopt the draft constitution for the EU, drawn up by the former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, with minimal changes.

M. Giscard's plan envisages a leaner Commission, in which not every nation would have a full voting representative in the EU's executive. It would also change countries' voting powers. Poland and Spain oppose the move on countries' voting rights and most of the small nations insist on the right to send a commissioner to Brussels with full voting powers.

The Berlin-Paris accord is the latest sign of increasingly close Franco-German policy following the re-election of Mr Schröder and M. Chirac. The rapport between them is remarkable, considering their past relationship.

In Berlin in 1999, M. Chirac obstructed efforts to reduce Germany's huge financial contribution to the EU. M. Chirac later endorsed Mr Schröder's political rival, Edmund Stoiber, ahead of last year's German elections. But a rapprochement last year allowed the nations to present the rest of the EU with a fait accompli when Paris and Berlin agreed future spending levels on agriculture.

Both were outspoken critics of the US-led offensive in Iraq and officials say the nations have been moving together "millimetre by millimetre".

Mr Prodi said that, far from being a sign of Franco-German collusion, the decision to allow M. Chirac to speak for Germany was "a positive thing". He said: "I don't view this as a little group being distinct from everybody else."