Three-nation alliance trampled by Chirac

By Stephen Castle and Andrew Grice

The Independent

01 July 2004

Britain has concluded that its three-nation alliance with France and Germany is in effect over after a series of rows between Tony Blair and the French President, Jacques Chirac.

Ministers believe President Chirac has become impossible to work with, and one government source described him as a "rogue elephant". The strategy of "trilateralism" has now given way to limited ad hoc co-operation on specific issues.

Asked if the three-way approach was dead, one Blair aide replied, "yes". The Prime Minister's change of tack emerged as he accused France and Germany of watering down moves to ensure stability in Iraq and Afghanistan and warned that this week's Nato summit had not faced up to the threat of global terrorism.

The triple alliance, designed to set the European Union's agenda after it expanded to 25 members in May, came under acute strain during a power struggle over the appointment of the European Commission president. Britain helped to block the Franco-German candidate, Belgium's premier, Guy Verhofstadt, and then to orchestrate the appointment of the Portuguese Prime Minister, Jose Manuel Barroso, a supporter of the US-led war in Iraq.

At the Nato summit in Istanbul, M. Chirac watered down plans to increase Nato's presence in Iraq, criticised President George Bush over his support for Turkish membership of the EU, and objected to plans to deploy a Nato rapid reaction force to Afghanistan. The UK believes M. Chirac is lashing out from a position of weakness and is playing to a domestic audience.

The Government sees the appointment of Mr Barroso as an important turning point because it proved the French and Germans could not push through their choice of Commission president. The end of trilateralism will come as a relief to many smaller European nations, which feared the three most powerful countries in the EU would set up a directoire.

Jan Peter Balkenende, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, which takes over the EU presidency today, said he did not oppose meetings of the three big nations but "it is very important that this is a matter of transparency, that they are open in their meetings and they are willing to communicate with others."

In a Commons statement on the Istanbul summit, the Prime Minister said Nato was starting to understand the threat of terrorism, but added: "I worry that our response is still not sufficient to the scale of the challenge we face." Mr Blair questioned whether in "some quarters" in Nato there was the willingness and sense of urgency to meet the challenges it faced.