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EU: Summit In Greece Getting Under Way

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union's midyear summit is about to get under way, amid tight security, near the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. During the discussions (opening tonight, and on 20 and 21 June) the leaders of EU member states plus the candidate members -- mostly from Eastern and Central Europe -- will cover a broad range of subjects. The future of the Balkans, EU relations with the United States, the threat of terrorism, and developments in Iran, Iraq, and the Mideast are all expected to be among the issues raised. In addition, the leaders will formally receive the draft of the EU's first constitution.

Prague, 19 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The peaceful northern Greek resort of Porto Carras, where forested hills sweep down to the sunlit sea, is undergoing a dramatic change this weekend.

Snipers with telescopic sights are lurking in the woods and groves, warships with missiles are cruising offshore, fighter jets and helicopters are in the air, and soldiers and police are lining the road to the luxury resort's main hotel.

It's European Union summit time again, and host nation Greece is determined that the bloc's leaders will not be disrupted by either international terrorists, or the tens of thousands of anticapitalist, antiglobalist protesters who want to demonstrate.

The summit brings together the EU's 15 leaders, plus leaders of 10 candidate countries which are set to become full members next year. Also present, on 21 June, will be leaders of the Western Balkan nations Croatia, Macedonia, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which have the eventual prospect of EU membership.

With such a lineup of heads of state or government present, the target must be seen as tempting. The demonstrators, at least, say they are determined to reach the site to press their point. The Greek authorities are equally determined they will not. In an effort to defuse the situation, authorities have declared the city of Thessaloniki open, and have set aside spaces where demonstrators can gather.

The summit talks will cover a wide range of subjects, including the EU's joint security policy, illegal immigration, the future of the Balkans, relations with the United States, the threat of terrorism, and developments in Iran, Iraq, and the Mideast.

The EU's foreign and security policy chief, Javier Solana, this week said it's essential for the expanding union to further develop its embryonic security policy. He will present the summit with a 10-page draft strategy aimed at making the enlarged EU a bigger player in world affairs.

"This document starts off from recognizing that a European Union with 25 members [and] a population of [450] million people producing a quarter of the [world's] GDP cannot close its eyes to what is going on in the world. Therefore, it has to be an important global actor," Solana said.

With this in mind, the summit will discuss what the EU can do to foster peace in the Mideast. The EU is one of the sponsors of the "road map" for peace. The leaders will likely try to reach agreement on whether to blacklist the radical Islamic group Hamas, and they will consider a French suggestion for EU troops to be used to divide Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath this week welcomed the initiative.

"We think the deployment of interposition troops [a EU peacekeeping force for the Middle East] has become extremely important in restoring peace in the area. This is something we support very much," Shaath said.

Reports say the Nordic and Baltic countries are planning to ask the summit to adopt a strategy to boost democracy and economic growth in the Arab world.

Illegal immigration is another hot topic. The summit is expected to approve a further tightening of border controls and visa systems. It will also consider a plan to financially assist countries of origin to take back illegal immigrants, and a British proposal for the creation of special safe zones in areas of conflict. That plan is meant to reduce the number of refugees leaving such areas bound for the EU.

With its emphasis on preventing illegal immigration, the EU is seeking to prevent the far right from continuing to use this problem as an election theme. But human rights groups are concerned that the crackdown will itself fuel negative public perceptions of asylum seekers.

The summit will also discuss policy towards Iran. EU foreign ministers told Iran this week that, if it wants a planned trade accord with the EU, then it must accept tougher inspections of its nuclear program so as to convince the world it is not developing illegal weapons.

"I think it is very, very important that Iran signs the additional protocol [letting UN inspectors visit Iran's nuclear plants]. It is something that everybody should sign up to, and I hope that Iran will do so," Solana said.

Further, Greece will be pressing the summit to adopt a strategy on deepening relations with the volatile West Balkans. As Roussos Koundouros, a spokesman for the Greek EU presidency, said, "The EU has a special responsibility and has made a commitment to help these [Balkan] countries integrate with the EU, further integrate, with the perspective of them becoming members when the time is right."

Koundouros said Greece wants existing links between the European Union and the Balkans -- such as Stabilization and Association agreements -- strengthened.

The summit will also receive the completed draft of the EU's first constitution. After 16 months of struggle, a constitutional convention headed by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing last week agreed on a text, and d'Estaing announced, "I am going to present, on your behalf, to the European Council in Thessaloniki our joint work as the foundation of a future treaty that will create a constitution of Europe."

The draft will be reviewed by the summit leaders, but it is not expected to be substantially changed by them. However, an intergovernmental conference starting in the autumn will have six months to ponder the draft, and Britain, among others, has already signaled that it wants to alter significant parts of it. France and Germany, by contrast, say they accept the draft in its entirety and a spokeswoman of French President Jacques Chirac yesterday warned against trying to "start from scratch" again at the conference.