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Berlin meet says European Union members' fears are unfounded

By Vaiju Naravane

PARIS, FEB. 18. The leaders of France, Britain and Germany seemed to go into defensive overdrive as they gathered in Berlin at the invitation of the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, to discuss the European Union's enlargement and proposed constitution as well as ways to stimulate economic growth and introduce social and labour reforms.

Faced with resentment and criticism from several large and small E.U. nations including Spain, Italy, Portugal, Poland, Austria and The Netherlands who claim the tripartite meeting is an effort to dominate over Europe's smaller members, German diplomats said it was `absurd' to describe the trio as a new European `directorate'. The directoire or directorate was a small clique of men who grabbed power in 1795 following years of terror in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789.

"There is clearly a fear that what we are trying to do here is create some kind of inner leadership where the three large countries stitch everything up together. That is not what we are doing at all," said the British Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt, vehemently denying charges that the three countries were placing their own national interests before those of Europe.

The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, described the summit as a `mess' and a "botch up" while his Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, in an interview said the summit would serve only arrow interests. "The Berlin summit is born from national interests. Italy is not interested in this method," he said.

The gathering in Berlin comes at a historic juncture for the bloc, which expands from 15 to 25 members on May 1.

The E.U.'s three largest nations fear the expansion will only bog down an already cumbersome institution.

Four or five Cabinet Ministers, including those for health, trade and industry, social and labour from each of the three countries are also participating in the round of meetings organised around the summit.

The French President, Jacques Chirac, will be joined by his Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Officials say the three countries want to refocus the work of the European Commission, the E.U.'s executive arm.

The three countries are privately critical of the way the bloc is run. One German official called it "not always coherent". In particular they want a far greater emphasis on making E.U. economies more competitive.

Mr. Schroeder has floated the idea of a "super-commissioner," whose task would be to oversee the linked but separate portfolios of the internal market, trade and the environment.

Another suggestion is a commissioner to spearhead structural reforms in the labour markets and other parts of the E.U. economy.

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