BERLIN Jan 13 German Chancellor Angela
Merkel will gather the leaders of Austria, Sweden and Portugal
next Thursday in a bid to broaden consultations on key European
Union issues after criticism about Germany and France making
too many big decisions themselves.
With Italy now being consulted closely by Berlin and Paris
since Silvio Berlusconi's departure, and Franco-German proposals
for a fiscal pact and transaction tax needing broader backing,
she plans a series of cosy chats with small groups of leaders.
By starting with such disparate partners as euro-zone
stalwart Austria, bailout recipient Portugal and euro outsider
Sweden, she aims to canvass a wide range of opinions for an EU
summit on March 1-2 which could launch the new pact on budget
discipline and decide on Greek aid and future bailout funding.
The first round of these talks will take place next Thursday
at Schloss Meseberg, a government guest house outside Berlin,
and there are no plans for a news conference, Merkel's spokesman
Steffen Seibert said.
He was vague about the agenda, saying it would be "an
informal exchange of views on European issues and the future of
the economic and currency union ... It is certainly linked to
the fact that we have to take important decisions in March and
we will try to have these conversations completed by then".
The meeting takes place a day before Merkel and Sarkozy go
to Rome for their second round of triangular talks with Mario
Monti, the technocrat Italian prime minister who replaced
Berlusconi in an attempt to convince markets Italy can cope with
its debt pile.
Sarkozy and Monti visited Merkel separately in Berlin this
week, giving the impression that the recent pattern of "Merkozy"
taking major decisions for Europe bilaterally, for
rubber-stamping by the rest of the bloc at a subsequent summit,
may have had its day.
A crunch summit in December was marked by a very public
split with Britain and there continues to be dissent from
countries including Finland and Slovakia on the details of the
bailouts of Greece and others.
Merkel must keep Italy, Spain and others firmly behind the
chosen course on the crisis, with talk that Germany is still not
taking as much responsibility as it should bubbling under the
Monti told one paper this week Franco-German cooperation was
crucial but "it's not enough, especially in an EU of 27".
Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and Portugal's
Pedro Passos Coelho are both centre-right leaders like Merkel.
Sweden broadly backs the drive for a fiscal pact in Europe
but has reservations about the Franco-German idea of a financial
transaction tax in the EU. Passos Coelho is a firm supporter of
German policy on the euro zone who insists countries with fiscal
problems must work hard on austerity to reduce their own debts.
Austria's Werner Faymann is a centre-left Social Democrat
who governs in coalition with the conservatives and backs the
drive for fiscal austerity in Europe and the transaction tax.
Seibert, asked if Reinfeldt's invitation reflected German
concerns about the potential spread of resistance to the fiscal
pact and transaction tax, with Britain as the ringleader, said
there was "no concern" and Reinfeldt was a "valued" partner.
"The invitation to Meseberg has nothing to do with any such
worries," he said.
Merkel's spokesman also declined to provide details of which
EU leaders would attend subsequent meetings in the series,
though he said there were likely to be two more.