Greece at helm of drive to strengthen EU profile

BRUSSELS – Hard on the heels of a deal to bring in 10 new members, the European Union is returning to a question that has long escaped an answer – how is a global economic powerhouse of 25 nations going to get its way in the world? Efforts to make the EU a more credible actor in international politics have fizzled out in navel-gazing debates over whether to build an ever more federal Europe. Today, as war looms in Iraq, Israeli-Palestinian violence continues unabated and North Korea pursues a nuclear arms program, the Europeans trail behind Washington’s endeavors to shape a world order. «With 10 countries due to join in 2004 and Europe struggling to find a voice on the world stage, the Union has never been in greater need of visionary leadership,» Charles Grant, head of the Center for European Reform think-tank wrote recently in London’s Financial Times. He suggests the EU needs a president, «someone with the standing of a former prime minister» to represent the Union on the world stage. Under the current EU rotating presidency system, the man who will be the face of EU policy for the next six months is Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, whose country took over the presidency on January 1. Simitis says he will press the European view that the United Nations – not the United States – must have a primary role in resolving the conflict with Iraq. On North Korea or the Middle East, Greece – and the other 14 EU nations – have remained bystanders. In Athens today, Simitis will brief European Commission President Romano Prodi and other senior EU officials on how Greece plans to move the EU agenda forward in the first half of 2003. That agenda looks empty after the EU completed years of arduous and complex talks to bring Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta into the EU in 2004. Romania and Bulgaria hope to join in 2007. The EU is expected to open membership talks with Turkey in 2005, while Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania are beginning to press their case for membership. A much bigger EU requires a radical overhaul of EU institutions and decision-making. The aim is to revamp the EU to give it «a powerful presence in international developments – a role and a say on an equal footing with our strategic partner, the United States,» according to Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou. With that goal in mind, the EU has created a 105-member «European Convention» representing governments, parliaments and institutions that is due to present a draft EU constitution setting out a slew of reforms in June. Leaders of the 15 EU nations are to give the draft charter a first review at a June 20-21 summit in Thessaloniki. The result could cause the most sweeping changes in the way the EU is run since it was founded by the 1957 Treaty of Rome. The Convention is headed by former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who compares the work to that of the 1787 Philadelphia convention that drafted the US Constitution. But unlike the 55 men who worked through a sweltering Philadelphia summer to give the United States its Constitution and Bill of Rights, the monthly debates in air-conditioned comfort in Brussels are not about nation-crafting. Ever wary of the EU eroding national powers, Britain has already rejected Giscard d’Estaing’s idea that the EU be renamed «the United States of Europe.» The European Convention is debating a redistribution of powers between big and small sovereign states that have common trade, agricultural and economic policies, and share a single currency but are divided over where to go next. Federal-minded members such as Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, Finland and Portugal prefer a strong EU executive branch. Others are more wary of handing over more power from national capitals to EU headquarters in Brussels.

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