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Europe

Denmark Steers the EU Eastward with Aplomb

Just months ago, some in Brussels feared Anders Fogh Rasmussen might steer Europe in the wrong direction. But with EU expansion just days away, accolades are already pouring in for Denmark's six-month EU presidency.

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EU Presidency in capable hands - Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen

When he became rotating president of the European Union on July 1, 2002, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen had barely been in office for six months.

The fact that he had tepid support at home didn't make his job any easier. As head of a minority-led government, Rasmussen and his party were dependent on the votes of the right-wing populist Danish People's Party, led by Pia Kjaersgaard. Under the slogan "Krone and Fatherland," the People's Party successfully led a campaign two years ago against the introduction of the euro in Denmark.

The Danes were also known to have gone their own -- and often very conservative -- way in other EU policy areas, too, including asylum, security and defense.

Some in Brussels feared that Denmark, which has twice rejected adoption of the euro, wouldn't be the best country to represent the combined interests of the European Union. Lingering questions over whether the end-of-the-year deadline would be met for negotiating the expansion of the bloc to include 10 new members exacerbated those concerns. At the time, many stumbling blocks -- from agriculture to transit rights for a Russian enclave that would fall within EU borders after expansion -- still remained in place.

But Rasmussen moved quickly to allay those fears. "I regret our opt-outs and I want to eliminate them in the future," he said, hinting at possible euro zone membership for Denmark. He also added that the Danes could still successfully chair summits and represent European interests even if it didn't participate in the euro zone.

A ban on Chirac-Schröder poker games

Indeed in the following weeks, Rasmussen proved his skeptics wrong. He ratcheted up the pressure on the agricultural policy front and helped Germany and France find an agreement on farming subsidies, thus eliminating one of the few remaining hurdles for entry of new members. Early on, Rasmussen made clear to both countries that there would be no room in negotiations for any 11th-hour poker games. Few expected him to succeed -- and certainly not as quickly as he did - Rasmussen secured a deal on the eve of an EU summit in Brussels in October this year.

"Tonight we have reached a real breakthrough," Rasmussen told reporters at the time. "Now we have an agreement that gives the European Commission and the presidency the necessary mandate to finalize negotiations with the 10 candidate countries." He successfully managed to wrest concessions from both the Germans and the French. Nor did he spare the accession countries, saying they should only expect to gradually receive subsidies.

A hiccup in ties with Russia

Rasmussen also helped seal a deal in November on another thorn in the side of EU expansion: the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Under Danish leadership, the EU proposed a new system of visas for Russian citizens from Kaliningrad traveling through the new Baltic member states en route to Russia. Rasmussen struck the deal on the eve of the EU-Russia summit in Brussels in November this year.

But the summit wasn't all smooth sailing for Denmark. In the run-up to the important meeting, Copenhagen ruffled Russian feathers by hosting a conference on the conflict in Chechnya just a few days after a Chechen rebel-led hostage-taking in Moscow resulted in 170 deaths.

Originally, the EU-Russia summit had been scheduled to be held in Copenhagen, but the venue was hastily moved to Brussels after considerable pressure and criticism from Russian President Vladimir Putin. The move was necessary in order to avoid endangering any possible solutions to the Kaliningrad question.

Now, with most of the barriers out of the way, Rasmussen and Denmark will be able to roll the closing drum beat in Copenhagen: 10 candidate countries will be approved for membership -- a nice feather in the cap for Denmark's six-month EU presidency.

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