PARIS — It began mundanely enough. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder invited French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss social security reform and other issues of common concern at a meeting in Berlin, set for Feb. 18.
But with the European Union set to admit 10 new members in just three months - despite being deadlocked over a new constitution to govern the unwieldy 25-nation group - some smaller European countries are beginning to wonder whether the three-way meeting is so innocent. Could it be, they wonder, that their powerful neighbors might be planning to hijack the EU in the name of efficiency?
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini was the first to sound the alarm publicly, warning recently that "there cannot be a directorate, a divisive nucleus which would threaten European unity." Eyebrows have been raised in other medium-size countries, too, from Poland to Spain.
It is early days yet, however, say some commentators. "I don't think there is a blueprint for a directorate orchestrating things behind the scenes," says John Palmer, head of the European Policy Centre, a think tank in Brussels. "This is an exploratory meeting. But if there is no constitution and the EU is paralyzed by a lack of institutional capability, the vacuum would be filled by arrangements such as the triumvirate."
Irish Prime Minster Bertie Ahern, who currently presides over the EU, is seeking to salvage the constitution which heads of state failed to agree to last December, in the hope of reviving it this year.
Meanwhile, the frustrations of making policy and acting on it when so many voices demand to be heard have already driven the big three to act on their own. Britain, France, and Germany succeeded in persuading Iran to accept surprise inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency, after a diplomatic drive last year that excluded other EU members.
The draft European constitution would create a European foreign minister, and an embryonic European diplomatic corps, which would make such national end runs around EU institutions less likely.
German officials insist that the Feb. 18 meeting holds no hidden threat. "It is not being held against anyone," a spokesman for Mr. Schröder says. "But the three countries have an interest in moving Europe forward in the interests of Europe as a whole." The spokesman, insisting on anonymity, adds: "We don't want a fast-track Europe. But that could be an effect of the lack of a constitution."
Some outside the "big three" say they don't believe it. "Most people in the Polish government think the talk of a fast track is just bluff, a tool to blackmail Poland and force it to make concessions" in the wrangle over national voting strengths under the constitution, says Janusz Reiter, head of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw.
At the same time, Poland and some other smaller EU members see Tony Blair's invitation to the Berlin meeting as a reassurance. "Better three than two," says Adam Rotfeld, undersecretary at the Polish Foreign Ministry. "These three reflect the diversity of understanding of some transatlantic problems."
That very diversity, some analysts predict, would make it hard for Paris, London, and Berlin to offer cohesive leadership on many issues. The threesome "is based on mutual diffidence, which is not the best foundation on which to build anything," suggests Sergio Romano, a prominent Italian commentator on foreign affairs.
Berlin and Paris, however, seem to think they can overcome this, encouraged by Mr. Blair's recent shift toward a common European defense policy in the face of US reservations.
It has become clear that the Franco-German "locomotive," which for decades has pulled Europe together and pushed it toward greater integration by setting the agenda, can no longer do so alone when 25 countries are involved. Last year, France and Germany failed to carry the continent with them in their opposition to the US-led war in Iraq, and could not win approval for the constitution they both wanted, in the face of opposition from Poland and Spain.
The "big three" do share some concerns - they are net contributors to the EU budget; Europe's dwindling hopes of becoming the world's most competitive economy by 2010 are pinned on them; and they are linchpins of Europe's putative common foreign and security policy.
But Britain - which has not adopted the euro, the EU's common currency, and has stayed out of the "border-free" Schengen zone - is much more cautious about building strong European institutions than its two partners.
The three nations "want to close the gaps between them," and mend the damage done by their split over Iraq, says Mr. Palmer, "but not to the point that they will share a common strategy on EU integration."
Meanwhile, Ireland has canvassed all 25 current and future EU members to identify the lingering bones of contention over the constitution - the most notable is the proposal to simplify EU decisionmaking by weighting national votes. Spain and Poland, which would lose influence under this system, have resisted the reform, but Ahern is still hoping to break the deadlock by June.
However the crisis is resolved, some of the new EU members hope that it will lead to new thinking. "Triple Alliances and directorates are concepts from the past," argues Mr. Rotfeld. "We are at the beginning of a qualitatively new stage, and we should try to avoid explaining new developments by old patterns.
"The main problem," he adds, "is whether the European Union will be understood as a community, with big, medium, and small members, or whether it will just be big power politics."