The Berlin summit, the leadership of the ‘Big Three’ and the future of the European Union

The Berlin summit, the leadership of the ‘Big Three’ and the future of the European Union


The summit on 18 February 2004 that brought together French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and British Prime Minister Tony Blair sparked a lively debate on the leadership sought by the ‘Big Three’ in the European Union, that will comprise 25 member States as from 1 May next.


The Berlin summit, supposedly called to prepare the Spring Council on the state of the European economy and monitor progress on the so-called ‘Lisbon Agenda’, produced few tangible results. This should come as no surprise, as the thinking behind the meeting had more to do with the political needs of the three countries in question than their conceivable contribution to the progress of ‘project Europe’. However, the summit sent a clear message to both EU institutions and other EU members, the significance of which should not be underestimated.


Although the get-together was an opportunity to talk about many things, ostensibly the Berlin summit was called to analyse the state of the European economy and progress on the so-called ‘Lisbon Agenda’, ahead of the Spring Council under Irish presidency of the EU on 25 and 26 March 2004. This looked like the rationale behind the text signed at the end of the meeting, in the form of a letter to the President of the European Commission, Romani Prodi, and the Irish premier and current President of the European Council, Bertie Ahern, with copies to the heads of government of the other twelve member States. It made a somewhat superficial diagnosis of the little progress achieved on the Lisbon objective of converting the EU into the ‘most economically dynamic region in the world’ by the end of this decade and underlined the need to increase the efforts of EU institutions and member States towards competitiveness and innovation, though without threatening the main pillars of the so-called ‘European social model’, ‘modernisation’ of which was also among the objectives of the signatories to the original document. Somewhat surprisingly, given such an unpromising outlook, the letter roundly asserted that the Lisbon targets could in fact be met perfectly well by an enlarged Union of 25 members on a budget of less than 1% of GDP, given that the key lay in defining the right regulatory environment and in using existing resources efficiently. Such a statement places a question mark over the true purpose of the letter, given that the EU is unlikely to achieve reforms as ambitious as these with such scant means. Finally, the signatories suggested appointing a vice-President of the Commission to oversee the necessary economic reforms, supervising implementation of the Lisbon Agenda and coordinating the work of those commissioners most directly involved.

Before looking at the possible significance and results of the summit, it is worth glancing quickly at the background. What is immediately striking is that the summit of the ‘Big Three’ chose fulfilment of the Lisbon Agenda as the focal point of their meeting when previously neither Germany nor, particularly, France had shown much enthusiasm for it. Also, given the present state of the economy, Berlin and Paris are hardly in a position to lecture other European administrations on the virtues of innovation and competitiveness. In 2003 British gross domestic product was up 2.3% (almost as much as that of Spain) while French GDP staggered a mere 0.2% and Germany’s proceeded backwards a worrying -0.1%. In terms of jobs, The UK’s 4.9% unemployment falls a long way short of France’s 9.7% and Germany’s 10.2%. For these reasons, the summit conclusions raised some eyebrows in the UK, where people find it difficult to believe that Blair is willing to adopt the same diagnoses and remedies as two of Europe’s most problem-ridden economies. (Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, the eurosceptic Gordon Brown, probably shared their bewilderment and, unlike the Ministers of the Economy of Chirac and Schröder, he declined to attend the summit, to Blair’s intense annoyance). However, it cannot be ruled out entirely that Paris and, especially, Berlin have set out on the road to Damascus and seen that they cannot carry out the profound structural reforms their economies require without considerable outside help, a conversion that might make them look on compliance with the Lisbon Agenda somewhat differently.

Also surprising was the fact that the ‘Big Three’ chose to use the Berlin summit to present a proposal on the future European Commission. As everyone knows, both the make-up and internal organisation of the Commission were the subject of long debate in the European Convention held between March 2002 and July 2003, and dominated the subsequent Intergovernmental Conference, under Italy’s presidency of the Union. Although it is no secret that Paris and London have never been overly enthusiastic about the Commission in the past, they way they acted, as if the Convention had never taken place or as if neither of them had had the opportunity to state their case on much more appropriate occasions, struck observers as exceedingly odd. Furthermore, it should be borne in mind that after the June elections to the European Parliament the bureaucratic machinery will shift into gear to replace Prodi as next President of the European Commission on 1 November, a process in which, as always, the ‘Big Three’ will play leading roles. Despite recent asides on the need for a person with enough leadership qualities to shake off the prevailing lethargy, most people are convinced that the ‘Big Three’ are seeking a more accommodating candidate, who has taken good note of the result of the showdown over the Stability Pact. They are thus persuaded because, in the larger view, on a Commission of 25 members where votes are normally taken on the basis of a simple majority, the weight of the most densely populated States will be significantly less than it is at present. The letter to Prodi contained a clear warning: either the internal working of the Commission sees that the interests of the big States are upheld, or its powers and prerogatives will be severely shorn. The ‘Big Three’ will not allow themselves to be crossed on any matter of importance, and will from now on be particularly touchy about their key interests.

Berlin: towards a new triumvirate?
At a surface level the Berlin summit appeared to mark the enlargement of the Franco-German pact, as strengthened and redefined in 2002, to form a triumvirate (or ‘three-legged Directorate’) including the UK. This is most unlikely. True, those present said that similar get-togethers would take place in the future and commentators made much of the fact that the three leaders were flanked by their key ministers –those of Economy, Research and Health–, giving the occasion a certain solemnity. However, as Chirac himself noted archly, the UK’s presence should not make people forget the special (and unrepeatable) nature of the Franco-German pact. The French President thereby reminded his listeners that, as Philippe de Schoutheete observed over a decade ago, the Franco-German relationship is one of the few working ‘subsystems’ operating in the heart of the European Union by virtue of being: (a) special, ie, distinguishable for its breadth and vigour from those between other member States; (b) lasting, built on the Élyssée Palace Treaty of 1963; (c) effective, bearing a significant impact on European integration; and (d) accepted in broad terms by other member States, though not always to their liking. The Berlin summit was more a matter of ‘2 + 1’ than a meeting of three equal partners.

Should this be the case, one has to ask why Paris and Berlin decided to invite London to set up a new ménage a trois, instead of operating on their own as previously. (Note that in this case they were not talking about defence, an area that normally requires a British presence to lend credibility). The answer is that over the last few months, Chirac and Schröder have realised that in an enlarged EU, the Franco-German understanding remains a necessary, but no longer a sufficient, condition for them to hold the reins in Europe. This was clear on numerous occasions during the Convention and the IGC, and was underlined by both the ‘letter from the Eight’ and the ‘letter from the Ten’ over the Iraq war. It could also be read in the failed EU summit in Brussels in December, after which France and Germany said that the EU could only advance by means of a strategy involving ‘hard cores’ or ‘pioneering groups’, a notion that met with a barrage of opposition from most member States. Expressed in the terms used above to describe the ‘subsystem’, the so-called triumvirate was in reality the response of Paris and Berlin to the widening deficit in effectiveness and acceptability of the traditional Franco-German relationship.

The lesson learnt, Franco-German strategic thinking has come up with some interesting initiatives, such as the three-way diplomatic offensive in Iran in October of 2003 and the agreement on the future of European defence reached two months later in the European Council in Brussels. The defence agreement was particularly revealing, as it carried a clear message with respect to the present constitutional impasse: either the Constitution is approved, or the EU is obliged to continue under the terms of the Treaty of Nice, which does not contemplate ‘reinforced cooperation’ in the area of defence. This means that the ‘Big Three’ can advance on their own, unfettered by treaties or by the likes and dislikes of other member States. The moral of the story is: ‘It’s up to you, either approve the Constitution or we carry on as we are’.

Bringing the United Kingdom in on their plans will not necessarily solve the problems of the Franco-German axis, but it does have its advantages. In the first place, it allows Paris and Berlin to break the isolation caused by their inflexible stance on approval of the Constitution, as witnessed by the unexpected fact that the French President received almost as much criticism for the failure of Brussels as did his Polish counterpart. Moreover, it can truthfully be said that the triumvirate, such as it is, was forged in the heat of the Brussels meeting, when Chirac and Schröder perceived that Blair was not going to make Nice a matter of principle.

Secondly, the triumvirate puts an end to any alternative axis such as the one that appeared to emerge from the Iraq war, based on the pro-Atlantic attitudes of London, Madrid, Lisbon, Rome and Warsaw, by simply stealing its most important member. That said, the chances of that alternative axis becoming anything solid were, in our view, pretty slim, mainly because of the UK’s ‘eccentric’ nature as a European partner, Italy’s political weakness, Portugal’s small weight and Poland’s lack of experience. This appears to have been borne out by both Italy’s absence from the Azores summit and Britain’s approach to the suspension of the Growth and Stability Pact.

Finally, rapprochement with London may facilitate a possible reconciliation of Paris and Berlin with Washington, a move the German government is particularly anxious to bring about, alarmed as it is at some of the less-expected consequences of its intimacy with France. Despite the efforts by both partners to put up an apparently seamless front, Schröder has no wish to subject himself totally to the leadership of Chirac who has, up to now, called most of the shots on the trans-Atlantic relationship, with results which have not been very satisfactory for Germany.

The other major question mark thrown up by the Berlin summit relates to Blair’s intentions. It is often forgotten that when Blair came to power in 1997 his main foreign policy objective was to reconcile the UK with Europe, overcoming once and for all the mutual mistrust that had dogged the relationship since the 1960s. Obviously, the Iraq war made this task no easier, by reviving the doubts existing both inside and outside the country as to the strength and purpose of the UK’s commitment to Europe. More particularly, the war seriously weakened the attempt by the British premier to prepare public opinion at home for UK entry into the single currency, an objective on which he has staked much of his personal political prestige. In making the trip to Berlin, Blair wanted to show the British public that the EU is not a hostile racket, manipulated by the Franco-German axis solely to thwart British interests, in which the UK need not be permanently on the defensive.

In fact, as it transpired, Britain’s PM could not have been luckier with the existing political situation in Europe. In a different context, the UK’s implacable –and typically effective– action at the Convention and the IGC would have drawn harsh criticism from the majority of its European partners, as so often in the past. However, the fact that the issue of weighted voting as agreed at Nice or dual majorities as proposed by the Constitutional Treaty became the number-one topic left Britain, with very little to lose either way, in the position of being able to play the part of moderator between France and Germany on the one hand and Spain and Poland on the other. Blair suddenly found himself at the centre of the European debate and not at one of its extremes, as is usually the case for British prime ministers.

The quest for centrality on Britain’s part is not yet over by a long chalk. By moving closer to the Franco-German pact, Blair also hopes to heal the rift with Chirac and Schröder over the Iraq war. Being invited to participate in a tripartite meeting to prepare a European Council allows him to argue that the war did not force Britain to choose between Europe and the United States, as some of his critics maintain. At the same time, and more importantly, Blair sees the move as his contribution to repairing the trans-Atlantic relationship. Blair acted in support of Bush not only because he considered the war against Saddam Hussein fully justified but because he was genuinely alarmed by the prospect of the United States, for the first time since the Second World War and its aftermath, being forced to act on its own in an armed conflict having major international repercussions. The best way to show that far from being the President’s lap-dog, Blair was a loyal but discriminating ally, would be by laying the groundwork for a future trans-Atlantic reconciliation. Without the Berlin summit, for example, it would be difficult to understand Schröder’s recent visit to Washington, the first since his re-election at the end of 2002.

Possible consequences of a three-way Directory
The existence of the three-way Directory is perhaps preferable to isolated action by the Franco-German axis, but it cannot be regarded as a stable answer to the present lack of political leadership in Europe. In the first place, the Directory only stirs up the already strong tensions among member States, which have now reached an unusual level of animosity, something that really ought to be resolved in the run-up to enlargement. The cleavage between large and small countries has widened of late, with the latter fearing directories above all else. Nor would the consolidation of a triumvirate facilitate integration of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, some of which have not yet forgiven Chirac for his dismissive remarks at the time of the Iraq crisis last year. This is particularly difficult for Germany which, unlike France, has always carefully cultivated its relations with the smaller States (particularly the Benelux countries) and which has an especial interest in enlargement providing final reconciliation with Poland.

At the same time, Britain’s presence does not compensate the absence of the Italian and Spanish governments, which feel excluded and even humiliated. Italy’s case is particularly hard, as it is one of the six founder members, with exactly the same institutional weighting as the ‘Big Three’ and a significant economic weight. The absence of Rome has no doubt much to do with the scant confidence inspired among the majority of his European peers by the Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. It came as a special shock after the suspiciously deferential treatment given by Rome to Franco-German positions in the IGC sessions held in the second half of 2003.

The exclusion of Italy inevitably held consequences for Spain. It would have been inconceivable for Spain to have been at the summit and not Italy, although Madrid’s exclusion was not entirely dependant on Rome’s. Critics of José María Aznar are convinced that the cold shoulder he received was the direct result of his recent ‘Atlantic shift’, an analysis that does little to explain the presence at the meeting of the main European instigator of the Summit of the Azores. What really irritates the Franco-German axis (particularly Paris) about the role of the Aznar government in the EU is not its obvious pro-Americanism, though that too, but its audacity in not just opposing Paris but in persuading others to do the same. The fact that hardly 48 hours before the Berlin summit took place, a letter addressed to Prodi and signed by Aznar and the governments of Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Poland and Estonia was made public, demanding that the Stability and Growth Pact be applied ‘consistently and in a non-discriminatory way’, doubtless confirmed them in their diagnosis. Though questionable on some counts, the Aznar initiative was undoubtedly legitimate, or in any case no less legitimate than the letter from the ‘Big Three’ to the President of the Commission, particularly in view of the fact that it did nothing but remind Prodi of his duty to guard against breaches of EU rules. However, to avoid being charged with acting largely out of rancour, the Spanish government could underline more strongly that it is against the London-Paris-Berlin Directorate on principle, not merely because it was excluded. In short, it should be made even clearer that for the EU to function properly, consolidation of the triumvirate would be just as damaging as the establishment of a Directory of Six that included Italy, Spain and Poland.


The Franco-German axis, once known for its constructive contribution to the process of European integration, is in its current form a serious threat to the EU’s future stability. This is largely the result of the change in attitude of Germany, part of its transition from the ‘Bonn Republic’ to the ‘Berlin Republic’, the consequences of which for German foreign policy have possibly been under-estimated. In order to maintain and further its privileged relationship with Paris, the German government showed no qualms in challenging Poland, placing its relations with the smaller EU states in jeopardy and jettisoning its traditional role of interlocutor between Europe and the United States. This odd Gaullist behaviour by Berlin may have facilitated an unprecedented meeting of minds between the two countries, but it also robbed the Franco-German subsystem of its historical effectiveness and acceptance in the eyes of its other European partners. Nor does it seem to arouse much enthusiasm among Germans themselves, who perceive it, quite rightly, as an essentially inter-governmental phenomenon which could undermine the principles on which Community institutions and procedures are based.

Aware of their limitations and of the hostility they cause, France and Germany are trying to solve their leadership problems by incorporating the UK into a new triumvirate. Britain, for its part, is happy to be courted, knowing as it does that Paris and Berlin have more economic, political and military clout than Rome, Madrid and Warsaw, although it will not want to make a complete break with its former allies. Together, the ‘Big Three’ account for over half the EU’s population and GDP, but there is as much dividing as uniting them. To begin with, it would be difficult to conceive of a genuine three-way Directory while the UK remains outside the single currency. Also, given the limitations inherent in the system of ‘reinforced cooperation’ contained in the Treaty of Nice and the adverse reaction of many member States to the proposed stable ‘hard core’, the ‘Big Three’ will have no choice but to act outside the existing treaties, thereby severely limiting their chances of providing a stable leadership other than, possibly, in the areas of defence and foreign policy. In short, neither the Franco-German axis nor its enlargement as a triumvirate provide a satisfactory answer to the challenges facing the EU. Come what may, all the signs are that we are heading towards a more intergovernmental Europe, a trend that will only become stronger in the future if the Constitutional Treaty is not approved.

Charles Powell
Senior Analyst, European Studies, Real Instituto Elcano