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EU: Leaders Seek To Heal Wounds At Enlargement Summit In Athens

  • Breffni O'Rourke

European Union leaders are meeting today in the Greek capital, Athens, to ratify the accession of 10 new member states. Mostly from Central and East Europe, these candidates will formally join the union in May 2004. The Athens gathering is seen also as a key reconciliation session following the bitter divisions on Iraq among the EU members. But will the historic setting and good intentions be enough to heal the wounds?

Prague, 16 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Athens is hardly the most attractive of cities. Rows of featureless concrete buildings stretch for kilometers along traffic-choked streets. But towering above the modern sprawl is the plateau of the Acropolis, with its precious group of classical buildings. These include the Parthenon, perhaps the most beautiful building ever created.

Beneath these reminders of a more aesthetic civilization, leaders of the European Union are meeting today and tomorrow at a summit to ratify the accession of 10 new member states. The 10 countries -- mostly from Central and Eastern Europe -- will sign their EU membership treaties at a ceremony near the Acropolis later today and will formally join the union in May 2004. They are Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Malta, and Cyprus.

Today's ratification ceremony is largely a formality, one laden with symbolism as it takes place in the cradle of democracy. Gabriel von Toggenburg, a senior analyst at the European Academy in Bolzano, Italy, told RFE/RL it is also an important moment for the enlargement process.

"The signing of the accession treaty has a very symbolic value, and I think it is important because it makes clear to the European public that the project of enlargement is moving. I think for many people this is still something very far away," Von Toggenburg said.

But it could be said that the real importance of the meeting lies elsewhere, namely in the opportunity it provides for the EU to display unity of purpose after suffering perhaps the most damaging split in its half-century of existence.

The situation of the EU could be said to mirror the character of the summit's host city. With the ugliness of division all around, the EU leaders must seek to construct an edifice of enduring harmony.

In the split, Britain and Spain, along with Italy and others, supported the U.S. line on war with Iraq, while France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg opposed it. The rift has torn to shreds the EU's fledgling common foreign and security policy and created bad blood between the EU's members and the candidates, most of whom threw in their lot with the United States.

Independent Brussels-based analyst Stefan Maarteel said the split will be difficult to repair. "Regarding foreign policy, it remains very difficult to find a common point of view because I think the wounds are too deep at the moment," he said.

However, Maarteel is optimistic that the scars will heal in time, not least because there are new common interests at hand, in that all EU states support a strong postconflict role for the UN in Iraq. "They [EU members] are already trying to put aside their differences on Iraq because, of course, the countries which opposed the war the most, like France and Germany, are now interested in getting the United Nations into Iraq, instead of coalition forces," Maarteel said.

Von Toggenburg also spoke of the possible cathartic effect of the dispute over Iraq. He said it could crystallize new directions for the EU. "I think the split is quite limited to this area [Iraq] of the common foreign and security policy. One can speculate on its outcome in terms of impact on policy formation. One line of reasoning is that we really saw that we need a common foreign policy if we want to be a global player," Von Toggenburg said.

The other possibility is that the EU will decide that the concept of trying to develop a common foreign policy with 15 nations -- soon to be 25 -- is unrealistic and that it should instead allow like-thinking groups of countries go their own way inside the union.

On that subject, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, head of the convention drafting a constitution for an enlarged EU, will brief leaders at the summit on the progress so far. Perhaps Giscard d'Estaing's skills in drafting a constitution will determine whether the EU can talk with one voice on a major crisis like Iraq.

Von Toggenburg said the Iraq crisis has given a "scare" to the smaller EU members and candidates. They see the way the big powers France and Germany acted together as a possible example of the way their own interests could be overridden by concerted action by the larger members.