Greece is about to assume the rotating Presidency of the European Union for the next six months, and Prime Minister Costas Simitis has set out his country's priorities for its time in office. Athens will be taking over from Denmark, whose presidency is ending in triumph after successfully negotiating the terms of entry for 10 candidate members. But despite Denmark's example of how well the presidency can work, the office is in danger of being abolished.
Prague, 20 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Greece, the incoming president of the European Union, says it aims to strengthen the EU in one of its weakest areas -- namely, its common foreign and security policy.
Greece takes over the six-month rotating presidency from Denmark on 1 January. Setting out his list of priorities in Athens this week, Prime Minister Costas Simitis addressed the issue of the EU as a sort of tower of Babel. Critics say the EU often speaks with many voices, blurring the coherence of its policies. That is particularly so in its foreign and security policy, which has only begun to develop in the past several years.
All that's going to change, a confident Simitis told journalists. He said member states want greater clarity in this area. He said it is particularly necessary at present, in view of the Iraq crisis.
Simitis said EU policy must be clear in the event of military action against Iraq by the United States and its allies. Most EU states, with the exception of Britain, have cautioned against any sudden military moves against the Baghdad regime of President Saddam Hussein.
Simitis said that during the Greek presidency there will be meetings between EU leaders and U.S. President George W. Bush, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin and others.
In Brussels, a spokesman for the Greek mission to the EU, Nikolas Vlahakis, said the coming presidency also has a list of other priorities to fulfill, namely: "First, making [eastward] enlargement a reality. Second, [advancing] the so-called Lisbon process, which relates to social cohesion and the sustainability of the European economy. Third, [developing] a comprehensive approach to immigration. Fourth, the future [constitutional order] of Europe."
Greece is also taking over the presidency as the EU's first military force, the so-called Rapid Reaction Force, will be coming into existence and will have its first deployment, prospectively in Macedonia next year.
There's also the question of Cyprus, with which Athens is closely identified. At the EU's Copenhagen summit earlier this month, Cyprus received a firm invitation to join in 2004, but unless there is progress in talks between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities, the island will be entering the union in its present divided condition.
Independent Brussels-based analyst Stefan Maarteel said he thinks Greece's long support for the Greek Cypriots will leave its mark. "Of course, they [the Greeks] have the problem with Cyprus, so it is probably more difficult for them to be completely neutral because their own interests are very clear."
Spokesman Vlahakis denied this, and notes the commitment of both communities to continue with the UN-sponsored settlement talks.
The Greek presidency follows that of Denmark, which was a resounding success. Denmark had the daunting task of bringing to a successful conclusion the hardest part of the eastward expansion process. It managed to do this with great skill, with leading roles being taken by Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller.
Rasmussen won wide praise for the abilities he displayed in bringing in the 10 candidate countries, and without costing existing member states substantially more than had already been foreseen. During many hours of tense negotiations at the Copenhagen summit, Rasmussen was able to reach a deal that even Poland would accept. That country had been seeking further big increases in financing for the candidates.
Nevertheless, the days of the EU's rotating presidency are considered to be numbered. With the Convention on the Future of Europe well under way, the weight of opinion seems to indicate that the office will be abolished. The convention is drawing up an EU constitution, which will include the role of union institutions.
Simple mathematics reveals the problem. With the EU soon to consist of 25 member states, and the presidency lasting only six months, that means that each country would come to the presidency once every 12 1/2 years. Critics say the result would be a lack of continuity and inefficiency, with much time being lost as each country settled into its short span of office.
Analyst Maarteel does not see it that way. He said the presidency is valuable in it present form. "It also brings the EU to the different nation states, which involves people in the process, so for the people of Greece, for instance, the EU really comes to them now, and they can really feel for the first time that they are in the driving seat."
Powerful members Britain and France want the rotating presidency abolished. The European Commission, however, wants to retain it, but with the period of office extended to one year, as well as other changes. That general line also has the backing of another powerful member, Germany.
The eventual recommendation of the convention is likely to be the deciding factor in whether the rotating presidency survives in the new, streamlined EU.