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EU: Summit Focused On Balkans' Destiny, Immigration Problems, And A Future Constitution

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The Greek Presidency of the European Union is now drawing to a close following the weekend summit near Thessaloniki. Greece's six-month presidency has sought to focus the EU's attention on the still-vulnerable western Balkans region. Controversial plans to curb illegal immigration also figured in the discussions.

Prague, 23 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's mid-year summit has come and gone, with the northern Greek resort of Porto Carras falling back into its summer slumber as the noise of the helicopters, coast guard launches, and police trucks recedes.

This was the last of the union's traveling summits -- the colorful, expensive circuses held every six months in the country currently holding the EU's rotating presidency. From the end-of-year summit in December, they will in future be held in the more sober atmosphere of Brussels, the union's administrative capital.

This will save a lot of money -- the summit near Thessaloniki reputedly cost Greece some tens of millions of euros -- but it will also end the opportunity for the EU to be seen in action by citizens around the union. But so great are today's security needs that the citizens cannot really do more than watch the leaders on television in any case. Greece being the cradle of Western drama, perhaps it's fitting that matters of destiny were discussed at the Porto Carras summit. It fell to the prosaic figure of External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten to mention the fateful word: "The destiny of the people of Southeast Europe is membership of the European Union."

The summit confirmed the goal of taking into the union the five western Balkan states, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia-Montenegro, Albania, and Bosnia-Herzegovina -- countries wounded by the ethnic strife and disruptions of the last decade.

But Patten said the western Balkan countries must continue their political and economic reforms, and that the timing of their membership depends on their own pace of reform.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said in Britain's "Financial Times" on 20 June that more than just following a set of rules is required. He said "every country has to embrace the European project, that of an ever-closer union between member states and peoples."

The foreign minister of incoming EU president Italy, Franco Frattini, struck a more practical note when he said that the EU expects from the Balkans "energetic, totally firm action against organized crime," and "strong action" on reforming state structures to eliminate the widespread curse of corruption.

Current EU president Greece has arranged for an extra 200 million euros ($231 million) of aid for the five countries, in addition to the 4,600 million euros already committed by the EU for the period 2000 to 2006.

The president of Serbia-Montenegro, Svetozar Marovic, pledged to work for a settlement of the Kosovo problem, saying he hopes "we can really prove to all the European countries that we have the force, the patience, and the energy to resolve the many problems of the past."

The EU says Serbia and its majority ethnic-Albanian province Kosovo expressed readiness to begin a dialogue on the future, although the date of such talks is not clear.

Reports say it has been difficult to get the current EU members to agree to accept the Balkan region states as eventual members, and few hopes are held for early membership prospects of, for instance, Ukraine or Moldova. The union is accepting 10 new members next year, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe, and behind them Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey are waiting. Comments from Patten were not optimistic.

"There will clearly be a debate at some time about where Europe's boundaries should be, where the European Union's boundaries should be," Patten said.

Another difficult subject discussed at the Porto Carras summit was illegal immigration. The EU has long sought to develop a common approach to immigration, and according to European Commission President Romano Prodi, there was forward movement on that front.

"Tonight we made great progress on policies, coherent policies on immigration and asylum and better protection of all our common borders," Prodi said.

Nevertheless, the summit rejected a British plan for the union to fund pilot projects under which "safe areas" would be set up in regions of conflict. Under that controversial plan, officials would consider immigration and asylum requests while applicants were in the safe areas, rather than on their arrival at EU borders.

The Commission did not favor that idea, nor did many member states and some rights groups. They said that would mean that immigrants, if rejected in the safe areas, would simply go to the EU members not participating in the scheme, and apply there.

However, Britain and Denmark indicated that they will go ahead and test the idea on their own. Austria and Netherlands are also reported to be interested in the concept.

The "safe areas" idea was espoused by British Prime Minister Tony Blair after his original plan was firmly rejected by the EU partners. That plan had called for detention centers for refugees outside the EU, where asylum seekers would be held while their claims were processed.

Another important moment at the summit came on 20 June, when the chairman of the Convention on the Future of Europe, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, presented the leaders with a leather-bound draft of the union's first constitution.

The document, which took the convention 16 months to hammer out, seeks to balance the demands of those wanting greater European integration, and those who instead favor most sovereignty staying with the individual member states.

It simplifies the EU's central institutions, so that the union can still function when expanded to 25 members next year. Giscard d'Estaing urged the members not to reopen many of the compromises in the draft at the coming Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC), which will finalize the draft. That IGC opens at the Villa Borghese in Rome in October, and is scheduled to finish its work by early spring.