EU grows to 25 today

At 3.15 p.m., in a grand ceremony among the ruins of the marketplace where the ancient Athenians who first enjoyed the taste of democracy debated, bickered and shopped, the European Union’s 15 members will welcome into their ranks 10 new members. The occasion is historic both because it is the largest single enlargement of the EU and because it moves the bloc’s borders eastward, to include eight former Eastern bloc members, Cyprus and Malta. For Greece, it is also hugely significant as Cyprus’s accession has been a foreign priority for many years, in the expectation this will help end the island’s division. The latest effort by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to reunify the island, which began in 1999, failed in February when Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash rejected his plan. The Accession Treaty will be signed at the Stoa of Attalos, a reconstructed, colonnaded shopping center dating from the mid-second century BC, about 350 years after democracy emerged here. Today, EU leaders will hold an informal summit at the Zappeion Hall before going to the Ancient Agora for the Accession Treaty signing. Tomorrow morning, they will meet to discuss the future of Europe, along with countries neighboring on the new members. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul will come tonight, the Athens News Agency reported, so as not to attend the Accession Treaty signing. Ankara opposes Cyprus’s EU membership. All together, 41 heads of state and government and international organizations, including the UN secretary-general, will be in Athens today. The 10 countries acceding, and who will become EU members on May 1, 2004, are Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. The EU’s enlargement comes at a time that Europeans are struggling with an unprecedented crisis. The US preparations for the war against Iraq split the EU into countries (like Britain, Spain and Italy) that were in favor of Washington’s push for a military solution and those (like France and Germany) that wanted to give diplomacy more time. Anti-war protests were scheduled for central Athens last night, this morning and this afternoon to protest against the presence here of the prime ministers of Britain, Spain and Italy. The police prohibited demonstrations from areas close to where the foreign dignitaries will be staying and meeting. Unprecedented traffic restrictions will keep the visitors’ motorcades flying through the normally congested city. The gathering of so many European leaders and others will give them the opportunity to discuss the future of Europe and the way they will deal with the issue of Iraq, the UN’s role there and relations with Washington.