- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

ATHENS, Greece, April 19 (UPI) — When 40 European leaders lined up this week for a family photo at the end of a historic enlargement summit in Athens, it provided a snapshot of what the EU may look like in the not too distant future.

If this sounds far-fetched, or downright scary, think again. A European Union stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals and from the frozen wastes of Lapland to the arid fields of Anatolia is fast becoming a reality.

On Wednesday, at a ceremony below the Acropolis in the birthplace of democracy, the leaders of the EU's current 15 member states signed an accession treaty with 10 mostly former communist countries that will extend the union to the borders of Belarus and Ukraine.

Barring a last-minute rejection by voters, the EU will become a union of 25 states next May, creating the world's largest economic trading bloc and economic power. With one in eight countries belonging to the EU, the 25-member club will effectively become the world's "other" superpower.

But it does not stop there. With the ink barely dry on the accession treaty, the EU is already busy thinking about the next waves of enlargement. In a document adopted Thursday, the 40 leaders meeting in the Greek capital committed themselves "not to tolerate any new dividing lines" in Europe.

European Commission Romano Prodi said: "Europe has not enlarged its sphere of egoism and exclusion. We are enlarging by offering our neighbors closer ties."

The Brussels-based organization, founded by six states less than 50 years ago, is committed to taking in Bulgaria and Rumania in 2007 and Turkey at some point after that. A union of 450 million people will then become a union of close to 550 million, dwarfing the United States in both size and population and stretching its common borders to the edge of Iraq and Syria.

Many European heads of state referred to the next round of enlargement — by far the biggest in the bloc's history — as finally putting an end to the post-war division of Europe. But the continent cannot be said to be "whole, free and united" until Albania and the four former Yugoslav states of Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro join the club.

After that, things get complicated and enlargement becomes as much a question for cartographers and political scientists. Of course, the EU will welcome prosperous western European countries like Iceland, Norway and Switzerland with open arms. But the real debate in Brussels is what to say to quasi-democracies like Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova that are clearly in Europe but do not meet the bloc's strict political criteria.

The commission, the EU's powerful executive arm, believes the club should make no further promises about future membership but should promise a "neighborhood strategy" of closer cooperation with the former Soviet states.

In a wide-ranging debate on the "wider Europe" Monday, EU foreign ministers gave their broad backing to this plan, with Sweden's Anna Lindh even proposing a free trade area with Russia, the former Soviet republics and North Africa's Mediterranean states.

This "neighborhood strategy" cleverly sidesteps the issue of Russia's future membership of the EU, an idea strongly supported by Italy but few others. The current thinking in Brussels is that by 2015, when the union will have expanded to nearly 35 states, it will have reached the limits of its natural growth.

A European Union stretching from the Irish Sea to the Black Sea is one thing. A mini-League of Nations stretching from Vigo to Vladivostock is too much for even the most fervent believers in a wider Europe to imagine.

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