Merkel broadens diplomatic drive for EU March summit
By Stephen Brown
BERLIN (Reuters) - 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 cozy 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. Continued...