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Europe

Economic Talks in Berlin Undermined EU's Unity, Officials Say

Smaller EU member states complained about being left out of the decision-making loop after the block's six richest countries met in Berlin to discuss the global economic turmoil.

construction site with workers & eu flag

It is hard for all EU members to agree on how to proceed

The meeting in the German capital on Sunday, Feb. 22, was designed to forge a common EU response to the global financial crisis ahead of a G20 summit in London on April 2.

The talks, called by Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, were attended by the leaders of France, Britain, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic, the holder of the rotating EU presidency

Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Silvio Berlusconi

Are big EU countries good listeners?

But Sweden's Carl Bildt said "six to eight" EU countries had complained about being left out of the decision-making loop.

The rebel group included Sweden, Poland, Belgium and Luxembourg.

"I can't understand what was gained by Sunday's meeting in Berlin," the Swedish foreign minister said on Monday. "This confusion is not only undermining small EU member states and the (European) commission, but the council (of all 27 EU members) itself."

EU Cliques

"I must admit I'm extremely worried about the EU's institutional chaos," Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said on Monday after regular talks in Brussels with his EU counterparts. "Never in the EU's history has there been a period like this with so many cliques."

Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb during a press conference

Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb is irked by disharmony in the EU

Monday's meeting of foreign ministers came just six days before an emergency summit of EU leaders, called by the bloc's Czech presidency to address growing concerns about the spread of protectionist responses to the economic crisis within the bloc.

The announcement of the March 1 summit had come shortly after French President Nicolas Sarkozy infuriated Prague by suggesting that its car makers should move their production back from Central Europe.

Addressing media reports of a damaging rift between one of the EU's most powerful members and the current EU presidency, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg announced they would now be holding regular talks with each other.

"We were sometimes very surprised to discover in the press that we were in a bad mood, Karel and I," said Kouchner. "This is not true at all."

"So we decided to see each other, or at least to talk to each other twice a week ... on all the subjects," the two ministers said ahead of the start of Monday's meeting.

Setback for High-Tech

Network map

The EU is yet to agree on how to finance important high-tech projects

And in a setback for European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, foreign ministers also failed to make headway on his proposal to devote 5 billion euros ($6.3 billion) of community funds to high-tech projects to help kickstart the EU economy.

Ministers agreed that the money should not come out of the EU's budget for 2008, as had been originally proposed by the EU's executive, but failed to agree on alternative sources of funding, diplomatic sources said.

Barroso in November proposed a 5-billion-euro cash injection for projects linking the energy grids of isolated member states and boosting high-speed internet access in rural areas. Part of the money would also be used to boost alternative sources of energy.

But EU members have since fallen out both over the list of energy projects which the commission has identified, and its plan to look for the money among the EU's unspent funds, which would normally be returned to national governments.

Unequal distribution

Steinmeier talking to journalists

Steinmeier says Germany is not blocking the EU's technology package

The commission's subsequently revised list of projects was on Monday criticized by several member states. Spain, Portugal, Austria, Bulgaria and Greece were among those lamenting that too much money was being devoted to projects affecting Northern and Eastern European nations.

Germany, which pays the largest sums into the EU budget, has also been particularly critical of the package.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Monday denied blocking any progress, insisting however that "discussions" were still needed.

The Czech presidency acknowledged that problems remained, but expressed optimism that a deal could be reached in time for the EU's regular spring summit of March 19-20.

The divisions witnessed in Brussels on Monday highlighted the EU's difficulties in remaining united as it struggles to deal with its worst economic downturn in decades.

Author: Toma Tasovac (dpa)

Edited: Nick Amies

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