Letter from Thessaloniki

While Thessaloniki police continue to seek the «student bombers» responsible for small-time gas-canister bombs attacks over the past year, opinionated Thessalonians ask themselves questions such as: Has Mr Simitis at last got Mr Karamanlis on the run? Will the five-day-old Irish presidency of the European Union solve the sensitive task of forging an agreement on a new president of the Commission to take over at the end of the year? Will Mr Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, find in the person of Mr Simitis the efficient technocrat, in the style of master administrator, that he is looking for? Of course, from one point of view, one wonders why anyone would want to be EU president anyway, amid the division and bitterness following the collapse of efforts, just some weeks ago, by member states to agree on a European Constitution. Granted, the hours are good, the recompense more than satisfying and you get around a lot. But in Simitis’s case, it’s always a good thing to be offered a fresh start. All the same, the new EU president will have to solve knotty problems. He is expected to call for the materialization of a new nucleus of EU members devoted to closer integration.  Will the PASOK party at its extraordinary conference, later this month, resolve the novel and unpleasant predicament of its leader’s performance? Will this unforgiving party still be pointing its finger at a leader who deliberately identified its public appeal with his own personality?   Will Mr Simitis – once again – be inviting unflattering comparison with that of a future leader like Mr George Papandreou? Barring accidents, PASOK will be led into the next election by Papandreou as party president and with the current prime minister still at the helm. Given Simitis’s custodianship of the public sector, party officials, in all probability, will be greatly demoralized. Surely it’s not the best solution. Then which catch phrases will prevail? Can the language of the late 1970s suffice to win the elections? Then again, who will be the one able to talk the most fluent «European?» Persuading a skeptical Greek electorate to love the European Union will have to be one of the tasks that our next government will have to face.      Also, there is a looming danger that «Europe might end up operating at two speeds if stalled negotiations on a new Constitution are not successfully concluded this year» – as the European Commission president, Romano Prodi, warned a few days ago. In such a case, where would Greece belong? There are many more crucial questions that make our actual political scene appear so tiny and trivial: Should the EU start talks in 2004 on admitting Turkey? Will Greece be in the vanguard of a mixed group of old and new states to set the new rules in the EU? Will there be majority voting and no national vetoes in the new, streamlined European policymaking? The answers are manifold. Yet Mr Simitis and the Greek political parties are not alone in their predicament. Another EU member, Spain, is facing elections too. In March. The Polish prime minister will be out of action for another reason. He had an accident. And Bertie Ahern, namely the Irish prime minister – widely known as a «consensus builder and a deal-broker» – whose country took over the EU presidency last Thursday, has warned us – in a hardly noticeable brogue – that it may take until 2005 to overcome the dispute over the constitution of an enlarged EU. Next May 1 will be a glittering «day of welcomes» as 10 new members (Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia) enter the European Union officially. Excepting newcomer Poland – the largest of the countries joining the club – the rest seem to be anticipating the fate of Ireland, an island nation with a population of fewer than 4 million, who benefited greatly from the economies of larger European nations. Now it has one of the highest growth rates in Europe. Also next June, there will be elections for the European Parliament. Our own elections are expected to be held on March 14 or 21. At a time when Europe is more divided than ever, and patching up EU relations with the US should be a high priority, «decorative changes in PASOK’s shop front» as current developments were described by the opposition’s spokesman, appear totally irrelevant. What is for certain is that the post-Simitis era is already on the horizon.

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