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Europe

2004 Expected to Be a Tough Year for EU

As the EU expands from 15 to 25 members in May, unity will become more difficult. Already there is substantial dissent from the founding members of the bloc.

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Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern will have his hands full as EU President in 2004.

Even before taking over the EU presidency on January 1, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern is trying to temper expectations. He considers a quick attempt to reach an agreement on an EU constitution unrealistic. Europeans are simply too divided. And in any case, nothing on this front will happen before the March parliamentary elections in Spain, which rejected the proposed constitution.

Instead of resolving the fight, Ahern will have his hands full attempting to keep the divisions within the EU from growing deeper. In May, the EU will expand from 15 to 25 members.

In the weeks following the rejection of a proposed EU constitution, there have been suggestions about ways some long-time EU members might be grouped together to gain power within the EU as a whole.

Ahern opposes idea of 'core Europe'

Ahern said he opposes the idea of a two-speed Europe. Nonetheless, the first meeting of the so-called core European countries -- France, Germany and other founding members of the EU -- could take place in the coming weeks. Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker is apparently already preparing plans for this.

The first indications of a counter-movement came just hours after the failed constitutional summit in Brussels. Six of the 10 top EU countries let it be known that they were not prepared to pump more money into the EU. Now countries that have received money will have to give money to the new members from Eastern Europe.

The already hotly debated financial dealings are being mixed with the power questions brought up in discussions of the constitution. In 2004, this will provide a strong test of the European will and ability to integrate.

New EU commission president to be chosen

The divided heads of state must choose a new EU commission president who will then lead an EU government with 25 commissioners -- one for every member state. Juncker is a controversial candidate as he has provoked anger from Italy and many of the smaller member states that weren't part of the group that founded the EU.

At the end of the year, the EU faces a decision on whether Turkey will be taken on as a candidate for membership. In light of the institutional and financial difficulties the EU is already struggling with, this topic is expected to be divisive.

The next year will also present challenges to the effort at creating a unified European foreign policy. The common foreign minister envisioned by the constitution won't exist in the foreseeable future.

At the end of 2004 the Stability Pact dealing with the euro will be up for discussion again. After Germany and France blatently violated its budgetary guidelines and got away with little more than a slap on the wrist, several smaller EU members have called for stricter enforcement of the Pact, especially in light of enlargement.

The EU, which is approaching its 50th birthday, has already survived many crises. And the growing union is not about to fall apart. But 2004 will be a difficult year for testing the bloc's unity.

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