European Union prepares for expansion

Sunday, December 16, 2001

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The leaders of the 15 European Union nations set the EU on the path to expansion Saturday, pledging to make it a more open, efficient organization as it pushes eastward in the coming years.

To prevent the EU from becoming unwieldy when it nearly doubles its membership beginning in 2004, the leaders set guidelines for a convention that will gather next year to reform the union's administrative rules and define it -- either as a tight-knit organization with strong central power or a limited, looser grouping.

Citizens in the EU want "more results, better responses to practical issues and not a European superstate or European institutions inveigling their way into every nook and cranny of life," the leaders said in the Laeken Declaration, named after the Brussels suburb where their two-day summit was held.

"There are weaknesses in the EU that must be eliminated," said Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt of Belgium, the current EU president and summit host. "It will be a process of one year of fundamental debate."

The EU leaders had lunch with the heads of the 13 candidates for membership: Slovenia, Hungary, Estonia, Malta, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey.

The EU says the first 10 should be able to join Jan. 1, 2004 after approval by EU member parliaments. Bulgaria and Romania are not considered ready, and Turkey, which has serious economic and human rights problems, has not yet begun negotiations for membership.

The leaders named former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing to head the debate at the convention, which is set to start March 1 and hammer out proposals to be considered in 2004.

More than 100 representatives of governments, the European Parliament, national legislatures and the candidate countries -- excluding Turkey -- will participate.

The leaders also gave military clout to their common foreign policy Saturday by declaring their nascent European rapid-reaction corps operational. Though it won't meet its goal of being able to deploy 60,000 troops until 2003, the EU wanted to show it has progressed beyond the theoretical stage.

The EU says it can now field a small force on humanitarian or peacekeeping missions for a limited time.

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