ONE of them has very recently seen two of his closest political allies convicted in the courts for misuse of public money. Another has lost the trust of the public in his country and faces strong opposition to some of his policies from members of his own party. A third only very narrowly won the last election and would probably lose if another were held tomorrow. Yet these men were described as the Big Three of the European Union when they met in Berlin on Wednesday and many of their colleagues throughout the EU expressed fears that their meeting would result in the imposition of trilaterally agreed policies on other member states.

The outcome of the meeting between President Chirac, Prime Minister Blair and Chancellor Schroder hardly justified those fears; the emphasis was on improving economic efficiency and growth within the EU - first agreed on at a Summit meeting in Portugal in 1998 - possibly by the appointment of a new “super commissioner” to drive through the necessary reforms. Opposition to this idea was immediately heard from Prime Minister Berlusconi in Italy and from the European Commission itself in Brussels. Doubtless other topics were discussed in Berlin but from what was said at the press conference it is unlikely that any will surface as hard policy proposals agreed between the so-called Big Three.

It may be worth reflecting that two of the three countries meeting in Berlin France and Germany - are currently in breach of the Growth and Stability Pact which is intended to underpin the euro, and the third is not even a member of the single currency. It is undertandable, therefore, that countries such as Spain and Italy with impressive economic credentials cannot quite understand why the Big Three should not be a Big Five.