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EU: Greek Presidency Presents Priorities For Next Six Months

The European Union's incoming Greek Presidency presented its working priorities for the next six months after a joint meeting in Athens today of the Greek government and the European Commission. Officially, the Greek Presidency hopes to concentrate on urgent EU business, such as finalizing enlargement, curbing immigration, and reinvigorating the bloc's ailing economy. However, concerns were evident today that the issue of Iraq might overshadow much of Greece's six-month term.

Brussels, 10 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- No incoming EU Presidency relishes a situation where international contingencies threaten to play havoc with carefully laid plans to extract as much success and prestige from the six months in office as possible.

Greece -- which took over the presidency 10 days ago -- appears to face a classic case of this. Instead of routinely overseeing a triumphal signing ceremony of the enlargement treaties in April and the winding up of the work of the European Convention on the future of the EU, the Greek presidency will, for many, stand and fall with how it handles a possible war in Iraq.

To be fair, promoting a more coherent foreign and defense policy for the EU is one of the five official Greek priorities. Yet it is unlikely that much good can come from such an early test of the magnitude of a war in Iraq.

The Greek government appears to have tackled the issue head on. Costas Simitis, the Greek prime minister, said today he is in constant contact with other EU governments to work out a common position on Iraq.

"I'm in contact with the prime ministers of the countries that are members of the Security Council, the Greek government, [and] the foreign minister is in contact with the other members of the European Union. We are discussing, and our aim is to have a common position. Now, it is early to say when this common position will be and what it will be when we do not yet know all the facts of the problem," Simitis said.

Whether there will be a common position will become clear at the end of January, when EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels to discuss the UN weapons inspectors' report to the UN Security Council on 27 January.

If an agreement emerges, it will be up to Britain and France -- both permanent members of the UN Security Council -- and rotating Security Council members Germany and Spain to defend the EU's position at the United Nations.

In an early sign of discord, Germany's ambassador to the UN -- who will chair the Security Council in February -- yesterday said a second UN resolution is not necessary for a war against Iraq, appearing oblivious to long-standing French efforts to ensure the opposite.

Whatever the result of the deliberations at the UN, Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, made clear today that the EU has already made contingency plans for a war. Speaking alongside Simitis, he said the commission discussed rebuilding Iraq last week: "We have contingency plans in case [of] a war in order to bring relief [for] the humanitarian consequences of the war."

While Iraq took center stage at the news conference at the end of today's joint meeting, regular Greek priorities were not wholly ignored.

Central among the latter is enlargement, which will culminate on 16 April in Athens when the 10 new members admitted at December's Copenhagen summit will sign their accession treaties.

But both Simitis and Prodi emphasized today that enlargement will stop neither there nor with Bulgaria and Romania joining in 2007. The Greek Presidency says it is also keen to take up the case of the "potential candidates" in the Western Balkans.

Prodi today said the commission fully supports the initiative: "We have to send a clear message that the door of the [European] Union is open, and in the long run the Balkans belong strictly to Europe. A lot of hard work is needed, but eventually, all the Balkans countries can become members of the union."

Prodi said the Western Balkan countries will not join all together. Instead, normal EU rules will apply, above all the "own merits" principle, which means each country will join when it is ready, without having to wait for the others. This process is likely to be kick-started by Croatia, which has said it will seek candidate status in the coming months.

Prodi and Simitis also dwelled on a "borders of Europe" debate expected to be launched under the Greek Presidency.

According to the Greek prime minister, the EU wants members that "accept its principles, accept the rule of law, and have certain economic and social conditions which make it possible for them to participate in European development."

Finally, the Greek Presidency will also put stress on reviving the EU's stagnating economy and curbing illegal immigration into the bloc, which is estimated at half a million people a year.