Three’s the Charm?

France, Germany and Britain want to lead the E.U. But can they agree?


Much to the chagrin of Europe’s lesser powers, the leaders and foreign ministers of the European Union’s “big three” states, Britain, France and Germany, will meet tomorrow in Berlin to discuss an agenda that goes beyond defense and foreign policy — areas where they traditionally take a lead — to questions of economic reform, education, immigration, and even the E.U. constitution.

The European Union, at least in theory, prizes consensus-building among multiple parties as the most equitable path to decision making. But there’s a feeling among the big powers that they have to take a leadership role in the alliance, especially ahead of its long-awaited expansion from 15 to 25 members in May.

It’s not clear that forming a core of three major powers is the way to go, though, as the International Herald Tribune points out:

“The EU of 25 countries is certainly going to need strategic leadership. Without it, the Union risks dissolving into a confused array of overlapping and shifting coalitions without clear, common policies. But the EU has never moved forward simply at the behest of its larger members. Quite the opposite.

European successes over the last 50 years have been based on the E.U.’s exceptional ability to allow smaller countries a genuine voice and a partnership with larger countries.”

Ian Black of the Guardian details the controversy over the British-French-German alliance:

“Reactions to the summit range from the irritated to the indifferent. The uninvited Italians went into a pre-emptive comic opera sulk, warning darkly of the dangers of a “directoire”. Spain’s José Maria Aznar muttered about being relegated to the “children’s table”. But the Poles – whose relations with France and Germany are frosty these days – like the idea of Britain’s Atlanticist input.”

Larger states claim they don’t plan to monopolize the agenda but only want to focus their discussion ahead of a March summit with the larger E.U. community. But the three countries have good reason to want to stamp their authority on the alliance ahead of expansion, as the Herald Tribune notes:

“Enlargement is straining this system to the limit. The new EU of 25 will have six larger and 19 smaller countries, with the “bigs” accounting for about 75 percent of total population. Getting 25 countries to agree is difficult enough; finding a decision-making system that balances the interests of big and small is even harder. Little wonder that France, Germany and Britain think they can simply cut through this Gordian knot by making themselves the de facto leaders.”

The political miracle of the European Union peacefully united nations that brutally fought each other just half a century ago. However, bureaucratic red tape and regional clashes of interest threaten to undermine the alliance’s effectiveness.

The clash between David and Goliath nations of Europe seems to only intensify with each bid to re-arrange power structures to solve common problems. Spectacular recent failures include the collapse of an effort to draw up an E.U. constitution in December when member states failed to agree on how to dole out voting rights in a way that would take into account well-populated nations but balance the rights of smaller states. Poland and Spain were unhappy at not having equal votes with Germany and France in the European Council.

Reports that Chirac and Schroeder were partnering to steer E.U. decisions to their advantage stirred an outcry this fall, with accusations that France and Germany were setting the agenda and expecting preferential treatment.

For example, the Netherlands and other states that adhered to economic belt-tightening measures are outraged because Germany and France skirted requirements to bring deficits in line, thus trashing E.U. monetary stability rules.

Why is the German-French pair inviting Britain into what some view as an elite grouping?

After all, as the International Herald Tribune reminds:
“Britain has long hankered after an equal position in leading the Union. But deep down, British officials and politicians know they will always be a bit of an outsider in the French-German marriage.”

Time describes how Germany and France are less self-sufficient that they once were:

“In the past, Germany and France only needed each other to look good. Monetary union and the euro itself are parade examples of big changes they led. But with enlargement, “they have lost this precious status,” says Christoph Bertram, director of the Institute for International Politics and Security in Berlin. “The rest of the European Union no longer automatically regards their decisions as in the interest of Europe.””

Critics within the E.U. often deride Blair as President Bush’s “lap dog” and charge Britain, which declined to formally adopt the euro as currency, with myopic self-interest. Blair’s participation in the “Group of Three” signals that he wants to better align himself with the interests of Europe as a leader in the region.

Time further explains:

Now Europe’s heavyweights need each other. Each wants to escape domestic troubles by looking statesmanlike, sitting down together instead of screaming, and using a display of E.U. clout to bolster their flagging fortunes back home. “A year ago, I would have said that a trilateral grouping like this would have little chance of getting off the ground,” says Stephen Byers, a former British Cabinet Minister who is close to Blair and has been sounding out political opinion on the Continent on his behalf. “But now, precisely because of Iraq, there’s a desire to come together. It just feels like the chemistry is right

How might the three partners fare? The Guardian describes the likely dynamics:

“It happens in any relationship: the partners want different things. There is already anxiety in London about a “mismatch” of expectations, with an impatient Blair looking for action on economic reform while Chirac and Schröder hanker after the sort of emotional bond that has been waning since Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand were in charge. It sounds like a bad, if familiar, case of practical Brits versus visionary continentals.”

So what do the parties expect to accomplish in Berlin? For one, the ‘Big Three’ is planning to restructure the European Commission to bolster European industrial competitiveness. The European Union has created 6 million jobs since 1999 but the E.U. Observer reports:

“In fact, the growth rate in productivity per employed person in the E.U. is actually declining and now fluctuates between 0.5 percent and 1 percent, far behind the two percent enjoyed by the US.

“Again, the conclusion of the report is that “the European Union’s efforts to catch up with the United States are at a standstill”.

The three leaders are also expected to discuss the formation of a military peacekeeping body. This from E.U. Business:

“The E.U. originally wanted to create a rapid-reaction force of 60,000, but this has been scaled back because military capabilities do not stretch to the soldiers and equipment needed.
“Nevertheless with the backing of its three most powerful nations, the EU is now in a much better position to advance its fledgling common defence policy, which is widely seen as a non-starter without British involvement.”

The Guardian questions whether Britain’s interests are best served by the trilateral apporach.

“Britain might be better off sticking to the ad hoc, issues-based European alliances it has deftly and promiscuously constructed in recent years. But it will always be hard to steer the ship while sitting firmly on the fence.

“Confirming this point, Blair has no plans for changing tack on the constitution, while Germany and France are keen to nail down the double majority voting system so opposed by the prime minister’s stroppy Spanish and Polish allies. Until that crisis is resolved, dynamic new leadership – trilateral or otherwise – is unlikely to take Europe very far.”

Whether the idea of a core of three big powers works will depend in large part on whether Britain, France, and Germany decide that the imperative to lead and manage an enlarged Europe trumps the divisions that exist between them. As an expert told the E.U. Observer:

“The determining factor will be whether the three will have enough to fill a common agenda, says Heather Grabbe, deputy director at the Centre for European Reform.

“While they have some common ideas in foreign and defence policy – last year they formed an alliance to confront Iraq on its nuclear weapons and brokered a deal to bring forward EU defence policy – there are still many areas of division in justice and home affairs issues, economic issues and the single market.

“Nevertheless, “the idea of a core Europe looks very tempting on the eve of enlargement”, says Ms Grabbe adding that the meeting is an admission by the three countries that an “EU of 25 is going to be really quite hard to manage.”