- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2007

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Angela Merkel took over the European Union Jan. 1 with a mountain of contentious issues, unsolved problems and the bloc’s expansion to 27 members.

She has pledged to give Europe a constitution, or at least its draft. Her critics as well as her supporters are skeptical. Germany’s first woman chancellor is facing the bloc’s six-month rotating presidency at a time of increasing doubt in Europe’s cohesion and of its ability to act together on crucial issues.

“People are losing faith in the European project and nationalism is re-emerging,” said the conservative Greek daily Kathimerini. “The acute disagreements between states cannot be disguised by diplomatic niceties.”

Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski, reflecting the mood of other former communist EU members, said: “What interests the Poles is the future of Poland and not that of the EU.”

Mrs. Merkel’s task is compounded by Germany’s role as current president of the Group of Eight richest industrial nations, which includes Russia.

Perhaps hastily, Mrs. Merkel has assigned the German presidency the task of drafting a new European constitution — or at least preparing the outline of a document acceptable to all member states, including Bulgaria and Romania, which joined at the start of this year.

The previous constitutional treaty accepted by 18 members was rejected in referendums in 2005 by France and the Netherlands. Since then, the number of “Euro-skeptics” has grown, and today it includes Britain, Poland and the Czech Republic. Several other members are uncertain.

“We cannot perform miracles in six months,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, casting doubt on Mrs. Merkel’s ability to prepare a satisfactory draft, which some European pundits have already described as “mission impossible.”

Yet most European officials see the planned constitution as an essential framework for decision-making. Such a document has to be accepted by all member countries. One veto can destroy it or send it back to the drawing board.

‘Safety net’ sought

Of crucial importance is Europe’s desire that the draft not include any contentious laws of the previous, discarded document. Given the complexity of the problem, Nicolas Sarkozy, a candidate in the French presidential elections, has suggested a diluted “mini-treaty,” to satisfy everybody.

Katinka Barysch, of London’s Center for European Reform, said such a solution “would look like a defeat for Germany, but as long as it is not called a ‘mini constitution’ it could work.”

Opinion polls across Europe, from the Atlantic coast to the ex-Communist Baltic States, reflect a desire for a constitutional document that would not undermine national identities and aspirations.

“People also want a treaty that works as a political, economic and cultural safety net,” said a member of the European Parliament. “Germany must go beyond presenting just an improved version of the rejected document.”

The German ambition to provide the EU a definitive and binding legal document is hampered by approaching changes in two major member countries — Britain and France — precisely during the six months Mrs. Merkel has given her government to prepare the draft constitution.

Blair, Chirac irrelevant

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he plans to resign in May, and that same month, France goes to the polls in presidential elections likely to end the long career of President Jacques Chirac.

Thus Mr. Blair’s and Mr. Chirac’s much publicized views on the European Union and its planned constitution have lost their impact and, in effect, become irrelevant.

“How far can we go without rendering the EU inefficient?” asked French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. “We need principles on common rules before we can contemplate further stages of enlargement.”

Among potential candidates are the countries of the former Yugoslavia, and Albania and Ukraine.

For some time, Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, the EU executive body, has warned that the bloc may be cracking at the seams and that, while still keeping an “open door policy,” it needs time to digest the latest expansion.

On Jan. 1, bands blared and fireworks lit up the skies across Bulgaria and Romania, the countries that, according to one official, “caught the last train to Europe.”

Admission of the two Balkan countries “will be the last stage of enlargement allowing the reunification of Europe,” Mr. Barroso said. “We are not in a position to further integrate Europe without institutional reform. There are limits to our absorption capacity.”

The two new members have poor economic infrastructure and both have been warned a number of times to curb rampant administrative corruption. Both bring large Roma (Gypsy) communities, most of whom live in mobile camps, without permanent residence, and often on less than $4 a day.

Muslims make up 13 percent of Bulgaria’s 7.7 million population, many of Turkish origin, who were discriminated against during Bulgaria’s communist period. Many of them were forced to convert to Christianity.

Their presence in the European Union comes at a time of considerable tension over the rights and demands of over 10 million workers and their families from Muslim countries, most of whom constitute separate communities resisting integration.

Porous frontier

The porous nature of Bulgaria’s frontier with Turkey presents another problem for the bloc. The trade and passenger traffic over 35 roads linking Turkey and Bulgaria is known as a major drug, contraband and illegal immigration route to Europe. Bulgaria has been asked to establish more effective controls over the border area, some 180 miles south of the capital, Sofia, but no one expects quick results.

Another problem for Mrs. Merkel’s EU presidency is the pending membership application by Turkey, a Muslim country of 71 million with an expeditionary corps of more than 30,000 soldiers established in northern Cyprus.

Despite a protocol governing trade relations between the Union’s recent members and applicants, Turkey refuses to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic without international concessions to the Turkish Cypriot minority in the north of the island.

Allied with Greece, the Greek Cypriot government represents a potential obstacle to Ankara’s EU membership, already hampered by the Union’s stringent demands for an improvement in Turkey’s human rights record, its treatment of minorities and freedom of expression.

In December, the EU suspended accession talks with Turkey on eight major “chapters” or clauses, in effect paralyzing talks expected to last up to 10 years. According to European assessments, Mrs. Merkel’s presidency is unlikely to make headway on the Turkish issue.

However, she expects to improve the Union’s relations with Russia — although last year, Poland’s veto blocked an EU summit meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin over Moscow’s ban of Polish food imports. Analysts say the veto power of individual members will weigh heavily over the bloc’s future performance.

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