- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

ATHENS, Greece, April 17 (UPI) — If the European Union is a "family of nations," as it often likes to describe itself, then in recent months it has been behaving a lot more like The Simpsons than The Waltons — to paraphrase a certain U.S. president.

Splits between "old" and "new" Europe over Iraq, tantrums by old French uncles about the "childish" and "irresponsible" behavior of new relations from the east, blazing rows between the British and French sides of the family at get-togethers … in recent months, EU leaders have taught Homer, Marge, Bart and Maggie a thing or two about dysfunctionality.

But meeting to welcome long-forgotten eastern relatives back into the fold at a summit in Athens, Greece, EU leaders kissed and made up, gave each other conspicuously long bear-hugs, spoke warm words about each other and tried — for two days at least — to play "happy families."

"At a time when there have been disagreements, this treaty is a fundamental statement of the unity of Europe," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair, sounding more like a virtuous vicar than ever.

The whole episode might have been as schmaltzy as anything John Boy or Pa Walton might have dreamed up, but it looked great on television.

Meeting in the shadow of the Acropolis, where democracy first flourished 25 centuries ago, leaders of the current 15 EU member states reaffirmed their wedding vows behind Doric columns and the 10 heads of state from Central and Eastern Europe promised to be faithful partners and have no more flings with Uncle Sam.

As in all weddings, new members of the clan signed away their freedom in front of older members and then assembled for what the Greek hosts termed a "family photo."

On Wednesday, when the current EU family posed for snaps with new members, it was just about manageable. But when the two groups were joined by distant relations from even further-flung corners of Europe like Moldova and Belarus, the EU suddenly looked like the cast of "The Sopranos" — plus all the extras.

Photographers got out their wide-angle lenses, cameramen panned across the vast expanse of oldish men in gray suits and, in a moment of high drama near the original Odeon theater, Greek host Costas Simitis turned a photo opportunity into a peace rally.

Against a backdrop of a white dove of peace — the current EU presidency's emblem — a choir started singing the Olympic hymn and schoolchildren handed olive branches to European heads of state.

Standing in a former military barracks, Simitis sent the white-clad kids scurrying off to plant an olive tree orchard "dedicated to peace and the Olympic truce." Never mind those EU labor laws, it's the thought that counts.

"May this peace garden grow and remind us that we have to work to ensure peace and cooperation," said an avuncular Simitis in front of a beaming French President Jacques Chirac and a scowling Spanish Premier Jose-Maria Aznar.

The scene was familiar enough to the leaders from the former Soviet bloc, who are used to this sort of communist-style choreography. But most EU leaders looked thoroughly embarrassed and started handing back their olive branches as quickly as possible.

As the clouds started gathering over the unseasonably cold Greek capital, Europe's heads of state held each other tight and vowed to see each at the next family reunion in June — except for Blair, who had already left to win a war and feed the Blair toddler, aged 3 years, not necessarily in that order.

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