- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2003

ATHENS, Greece, April 16 (UPI) — In the birthplace of democracy, Europe was reborn Wednesday as 10 mostly former communist states signed up to join the 15-member bloc at a ceremony in Athens.

Meeting in the shadow of the Acropolis, EU leaders welcomed Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Malta, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia into the Brussels-based club.

Barring a last-minute rejection by voters, the new members are set to join the EU in May next year, creating the world's most powerful economic power and extending the EU to the borders of Belarus and Ukraine.

Attempting to draw a line under recent divisions in Europe over Iraq, French President Jacques Chirac said: "450 million people are going to be brought together in the biggest integration project ever undertaken in the world by peaceful means."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "At a time when there have been a lot of disagreements, this treaty is a fundamental statement of unity in Europe."

The 4,900 page Accession Treaty, which commits the new members to respect the EU's rulebook, was signed by the leaders and foreign ministers of both current and future member states in the Agora market place, where democracy first flourished over 25 centuries ago.

It follows over a decade of torturous negotiations in which the Mediterranean island states of Cyprus and Malta, along with eight nations that were once trapped behind the Iron Curtain, have sought to rejoin the European family of nations.

"This union represents our common determination to put an end to centuries of conflict and transcend former divisions," the leaders said in a prepared statement.

Billed by some commentators as the "kiss and make up summit," leaders from both 'old' and 'new' Europe pledged to push for a stronger foreign and security policy for the bloc.

Since the start of the standoff between Baghdad and Washington, the EU has been split down the middle over how to disarm Saddam Hussein, making a mockery of its pretensions to play a greater role on the international stage.

Britain, Italy and Spain backed the U.S.-led invasion, while France, Germany and Belgium opposed military action to oust the Iraqi strongman.

On the eve of the Athens summit, Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder pledged to join forces to help the war-torn Gulf state. In another significant move toward healing the transatlantic rift that has opened up since the start of the Iraqi crisis, Chirac Tuesday spoke to President George W. Bush for the first time sine the beginning of the conflict.

EU leaders were reported to be working on a statement calling on the United Nations to be given a central role in the reconstruction of Iraq as thousands of anti-war protestors clashed with police outside the meeting's venue.

On Thursday the leaders of almost every European state, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, are due to descend on the Greek capital to discuss relations between the soon-to-be enlarged EU and its new neighbors.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is also expected to push for European help in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq in a series of meetings with key EU leaders in Athens.



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