The leaders of the European Union's three biggest countries called for the appointment of a high-level commissioner tasked with pushing through economic reforms to make the bloc the world's most competitive region by 2010.

  

Other suggestions included ways to encourage innovation, stimulate economic growth, spur training and research, reform labour markets and overhaul their creaking social systems.

  

"There are real changes we have to make in order to equip our citizens for this world of change," British Prime Minister Tony Blair told a joint press conference in Berlin, the summit venue.

   

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, flanked by Blair and French President Jacques Chirac, denied accusations that they were effectively creating a "directorate" that sought to impose its views on the rest of the bloc.

 

Dominate

  

"We're not trying to dominate anyone, let alone Europe," he said. "What we are doing is for the people of our countries and thus Europe and is not directed against anyone."

  

The talks had been hit by a barrage of criticism from EU countries not invited to join, such as Austria, Italy and Spain, who accused the Berlin participants of seeking to usurp the leadership of the bloc.

  

"What we are doing is for the people of our countries and thus Europe and is not directed against anyone"

Gerhard Schroeder,
Chancellor, Germany

Chirac said he could not understand the criticism, while Blair said it was logical for the three biggest EU nations to get together as they represented half the population of Europe and more than half its wealth.

  

He pointed out the cooperation between the countries in the past had led to progress on issues such as European defence coordination and persuading Iran to come clean on its nuclear programme.

  

The proposal for the commissioner, with the rank of vice president of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, was outlined in a letter drafted by the leaders to the Irish EU presidency and other member states.

  

They said the commissioner should coordinate all policy that advanced the ambitious target set by the EU summit in Lisbon four years ago of transforming the bloc into the world's most competitive region within a decade.

  

Wednesday's summit comes at a critical time as the 15-nation bloc prepares to welcome 10 new members, an expansion the big three fear will only bog down an already cumbersome institution.