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Europe

Iraq Threatens To Overshadow EU Expansion Summit

EU expansion architects in Brussels intended for this week's summit in Athens to mark an unprecedented moment in the growth of the union. But with members still split over the Iraq war, tensions could flare.

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Europeans want to make history for the second time at Athens' Acropolis.

Originally, it was meant to be a photo op. The European Union wanted to celebrate the ceremonious signing of the accession treaty for its 10 new member states at the Acropolis in Athens, the cradle of ancient Greek democracy. The expansion will increase membership in the EU from 15 to 25, bringing in many formerly communist Eastern European countries into the fray and driving the final nail in the coffin of the Cold War.

"This step finally breaks through the East and West divide of the European continent, the political division of its states and the painful division of its people, that resulted as a consequence of World War II," stated the draft of a speech to be given by German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder on Wednesday.

Though the popping of flashes is still on the calendar, what was intended as a historical gesture has now spun into a full-fledged EU summit with the war in Iraq wresting control of the agenda.

For weeks now, the EU has been divided by seemingly irreconcilable differences over the Washington-led campaign against Iraq. The difficulties were exacerbated when a number of accession states publicly lined up in support of the United States and Britain in an open letter published by The Wall Street Journal Europe.

"Irresponsible behaviour"

Incensed by the move, French President Jacques Chirac issued a terse warning to the Eastern Europeans in February: "It is not really responsible behavior. They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet."

Since then, the chief architect of the EU's eastward expansion, Günter Verheugen, has pleaded with his colleagues in Brussels and other European capitals to look ahead rather than to dwell on temporary divisions and to avoid forcing the future EU members to make a difficult choice between their alliance with Europe and their transatlantic ally, the United States.

"In principle, it's right for a number of the new member states to have a very strong, very emotional relationship to the United States that they don't want to abandon," Verheugen said. "And why not? It's certainly not anti-European to have a good relationship with America. ... We need to avoid situations where countries are forced to choose between Europe and America."

Global responsibilities

In Athens, Europe's heads of states and governments are meeting for the first time after the de facto end of the war in Iraq. Against that backdrop, the issue threatens to overshadow the signing of the accession treaty.

The Greek presidency of the European Union directly addressed the conflict in a draft of a declaration expected to be released on Wednesday afternoon after the treaties of accession are signed. "In the wake of the war in Iraq, we are committed to facing up to our global responsibilities," it read. "We will support conflict prevention, promote justice, help secure peace and defend global stability." The declaration calls for an "important" or "essential" role for the United Nations in postwar Iraq.

But it's clear the EU wants to make reconciliatory overtures to Washington. Speaking on the eve of the summit Tuesday, Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitas told reporters: "We must do everything to reinforce the transatlantic dialogue and avoid any worsening of relations between Europe and the United States."

And on his way to Athens on Tuesday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair stopped in Hanover in an effort to forge a common position with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, one of the most vocal opponents of the Iraq war. Members of the British delegation told Reuters the meeting, which focused primarily on reconstruction efforts, was "very good and very constructive." Both Blair and Schröder have lobbied Washington to give the green light for a U.N. role in rebuilding Iraq.

However, differences of opinion between Washington and Brussels are expected to persist - at least in the short run.

The most-heated issues expected to be tabled at the summit already surfaced at a meeting between EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday. Topping the agenda is the role the EU should play in the reconstruction of Iraq and deployment of humanitarian aid. The majority of European countries are pleading for a leading role for the United Nations - a demand the United States has viewed with considerable scepticism. Washington's key European allies in the Iraq war - Britain, Spain and Denmark - have also questioned the extent to which the UN should be engaged in the postwar Persian Gulf region.

"The fulfilment of a dream"

But bureaucrats in Brussels like Verheugen are optimistic that tensions over Iraq won't distract from the historical magnitude of the Athens summit. There have been four previous expansions of the European Union from the original six member states, but this will by far be the largest, with 10 new members.

For the moment, at least, as the heads of state gather beneath the Acropolis, the historical importance of European expansion will likely paper over the deep chasm in thinking between EU member states. In addition to the heads of states from the existing 15 EU member states and 10 future members, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan will also attend the ceremony as well as the leaders of Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Serbia.

"I have to say, this is really the fulfilment of a dream," Verheugen said. "When I first got started in Brussels, I didn't think this would be possible, but we've succeeded."

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