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Europe

Ireland Puts EU Constitution at the Top of its Agenda

After a rocky shot at the helm of the EU presidency, Italy handed the reins to Ireland on January 1st. Now the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern has set out his intentions before the European parliament in Strasbourg.

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Bertie Ahern knows exactly which way he wants Ireland's turn at the EU presidency to go

The Irish Premier left his audience in no doubt about his top priority over the next six months. He promised to pick the failed talks on an EU constitution off the floor and do all he could to elicit a final agreement.

"I pledge to you that the Irish presidency will spare no effort to make progress and to facilitate consensus during our term in office. The issue will command the highest priority under our presidency," he told parliament. Ahern was also at pains to point out that time is of the essence if the European Union wishes to keep its reputation in tact.

"Excessive delay will damage our credibility and weaken our standing. Stalemate is not an option any of us can contemplate," he said.

Ahern said he planned to hold intensive talks with the heads of state and government ahead of the next EU summit in March, in order to come up with a possible solution to the sticking point of voting weights. "I can assure the parliament that if my consultations suggest that there is a real prospect of agreement I will immediately move to seize the opportunity," he said.

The talks last December, which should have been the crowning glory of Italy's six months in the EU presidential hot seat, ground to a halt when Spain and Poland refused to give up powerful voting rights established in the earlier Nice Treaty.

Something to celebrate

A further high point during the Irish presidency will be the addition of the ten new member states on May 1st. And to mark the occasion, the Irish government is planning to invite them all to Dublin for a party.

As far as Ahern is concerned, it is a moment in history which is well worth a celebration. He told parliament that the founding fathers of a unified Europe had dreamed of a time when Europeans would never again kill each other in the name of natural resources, land or beliefs. And with ten new states poised to join the bloc, the Irish Prime Minister said that 2004 was a year in which Europe was moving closer to making those dreams come true.

With the constitution talks and EU expansion, the new President has a fat agenda for the next half a year, but looking beyond his six-month stint, he is confident that membership talks for Romania and Bulgaria will be concluded this year. He is also hoping to see progress in the unification of the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus. As it stands, only the Greek southern part will join the EU in May, but Ahern also praised Turkey's attempts to close the gap between itself and Europe.

A rallying call

Looking beyond Europe's borders, Ahern called on the EU member states to do more in the fight against poverty and AIDS in Africa. He said it was crucial for developing nations that they resume talks with the World Trade Organization. Several members of the European parliament called on Ahern to push forward his initiative on debt relief for the poorest countries in the world.

Ireland wants to stimulate economic development in Europe and has pledged to work towards the goal of making it the most innovative economic power in the world by the end of the decade. Ahern believes in increasing competitiveness in the union, and he voiced his support for the latest EU Commission initiative to completely do away with restraints on service sector competition for professions such as doctors, lawyers, architects and pharmacists.

He told parliament that Europe had to be as competitive as possible and that the greatest challenge is the desperate need for more and better employment.

Ahern, who likes to go by the Gallic name of Taoiseach -- meaning Prime Minister -- will be turning his own attention to matters of employment over the coming months. During his term in the rotating presidency, he will have to suggest a possible replacement for EU Commission President Romano Prodi, whose term of office expires in November.

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