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Challenges Remain as Germany Heads to Fix EU
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The new year of 2007 marked Bulgaria and Romania's official accession to the Europe Union (EU) but a celebration of night-long fireworks may still fail to ignite the hopes that Germany can, in its six months of EU rotating presidency which begins from the new year, salvage the bloc from a crisis of confidence.

Slim hope for agreement on constitution

The union's crisis was triggered in 2005 when France and the Netherlands, both founding fathers of the bloc, in their referendum rejected the bloc's constitution treaty mainly designed to streamline the union's institutions and create the post of foreign minister who could speak for the EU.

Their rejections have left the bloc somehow rudderless especially over policies concerning energy security and relations with Russia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier vowed to revive the constitution or at least lay a ground during her time at the helm.

Under her plan, a political deal has to be worked out over how the original text should be changed, while a full new text is expected to be ready by the end of this year and be ratified during the first half of 2009.

But the timetable will be subject to all sorts of uncertainties, and the French general elections in May could be the most significant one.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the key candidates, has already pledged to campaign for a stripped-down version of the constitution.

Reports said that he, if elected, could push the National Assembly to ratify the version instead of putting it to a second referendum.

Things would be more complicated if Socialist candidate Segolene Royal wins as her party itself is split over the constitution.

Even though a new constitution is widely considered necessary for the union's further expansion, chances for the European leaders to reach an agreement in a short time seem slim, said analysts here.

Hardly-bridged energy policy gap

The energy shortage has long been regarded as a threat to the EU's security, and Merkel has vowed to tackle it.

Russian energy giant Gazprom sparked grave concerns among EU members when it abruptly cut off gas supplies to Ukraine due to price disputes a year ago.

In order to shield the EU from possible energy disasters in the future, Merkel plans to present an Energy Action Plan at the EU's summit slated for early March.

However, the making of a common energy policy within the bloc is by no means an easy task. For instance, Britain and Sweden have been pressing for a Europe-wide deregulation of energy monopolies and the establishment of common electricity or gas grids within the union, while Germany and France have rejected the proposals.

Moreover, Poland and the Baltic states strongly oppose the deal done by Russian President Vladimir Putin and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in 2005 on building a new North European gas pipeline that would directly supply customers in Western Europe, bypassing Poland, the Baltic states and Ukraine.

Difficult expansion

Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU on Jan. 1. However, their entry process was marred by foot-dragging due to their insufficient efforts, as the EU criticized, in fighting crimes and preparing to tap EU funds, causing some EU states to hesitate at the prospect of the bloc's further expansion and integration.

Turkey's membership talk with the bloc has been partially suspended as Turkey refused to open its ports with Cyprus, an EU member.

Although a couple of negotiating chapters for Turkey might be re-opened next year, Turkey has to solve its conflicts with Cyprus beforehand, said German diplomats.

Merkel insisted that negotiations with candidate countries do not automatically lead to a full membership, noting the latter will no longer be given target dates for their entry as were Bulgaria and Romania.

Also the EU leaders declared at their last summit in December last year that the existing membership criteria would be toughened and the EU applicants would be scrutinized more carefully.

Such potential candidates as Serbia have been told they can join the EU one day only if they meet the criteria in such fields as democracy, the rule of law and a market economy in accordance to the bloc's goals of political and economic union.

Diplomatic challenges ahead

The EU has always been seeking a bigger role on the international arena over the world's most burning issues, among which the peace talks between Israel and Palestine would stand as a priority.

Merkel has vowed to revive the Roadmap plan for the peace between the two rival sides in the first half of 2007.

Kosovo could once again turn into a possible hot spot in 2007, German diplomats warned. Reports said that the Muslim Albanian majority there may make a unilateral declaration on independence from Serbia in case that negotiations fail.

Violence in Iraq, the nuclear standoff with Iran and the situation in Afghanistan could spin out of control under Germany's watch, diplomats said. Meanwhile, seeking better ties with Russia should also be a diplomatic priority of the EU largely due to energy concerns.

The EU countries had expected to expand cooperation with Russia through a new EU-Russia partnership. However, the deal was rejected by Poland at a Russia-EU summit held in Helsinki in November last year.

Merkel also planned to expand cooperation with countries like Ukraine and Georgia, which she described as Europe's "new neighborhood."

She also initiated to stabilize Central Asia - the large, energy-rich nations like Kazakhstan.

To achieve all these goals, Merkel has to convince those main EU players to bridge their long-standing policy gaps, but Europe may still fall short of a credible diplomatic force in the world if it fails to speak with just one voice, analysts said.

(Xinhua News Agency January 4, 2007)


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