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Saturday, 12 October, 2002, 15:59 GMT 16:59 UK
Europe's 'big bang' challenge
European Commissioner Guenter Verheugen
Guenter Verheugen: Bridge-building role

Oana Lungescu travelled with European Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, the man responsible for EU enlargement, during the week when 10 countries were announced ready to join in 2004.

In the hushed auditorium, the grey-haired, bespectacled man on the stage made a startling confession.

EU flags
The 10 country expansion plan is Mr Verheugen's most daring yet
"I sometimes feel a little bit alone," Guenter Verheugen told hundreds of participants at the Brussels International Business Forum.

His plea was meant not only for the European business elite.

As enlargement enters its dramatic endgame, only 1% of EU citizens say they are well informed about what it means.

And the commissioner in charge would like EU leaders to start spreading the message about its benefits just as tirelessly as he does.

Guenter Verheugen spends most of his time not in Brussels, but on the road, shuttling between the 13 applicant countries and the 15 EU member states.

Candidates shortlist
Czech Republic
Earlier this year, I joined him on a typically hectic two-day trip to Slovakia, which took him from an impoverished gypsy settlement to Bratislava University.

Wearing a black cap and robe to receive an honorary degree, the commissioner looked remarkably like a judge.

Indeed, an important part of his job for the last few years has been to assess how close each applicant country comes to EU standards.

But he told me he felt more like an architect or a bridge-builder.

To a great extent, the success of enlargement hangs on how skilfully he manages to bridge the gap between the interests of present member states and the hopes of the future ones.

Lofty ideas

Born in 1944 at the end of World War II, Guenter Verheugen studied history and worked as a journalist.

A former German minister for Europe, he belongs to a generation of politicians for whom the reunification of the continent is a moral imperative.

EU duty on cigarettes has been a controversial issue
The peoples of central and eastern Europe, he says, were victims of Hitler and Stalin.

They should be welcomed into the family of European democracies.

But of course, expansion is not just about lofty ideas.

Often, it is about apparently trivial matters such as the price of cigarettes.

Guenter Verheugen fought a hard battle to convince a fellow commissioner that candidate countries should be allowed to delay by several years introducing EU levels of duty on tobacco which would have raised the price of some popular brands of cigarettes by 50%.

I have high hopes for enlargement

John Adlington, UK
He is very sensitive to social symbolism, a close aide told me.

He is worried that people in eastern Europe are getting tired of waiting and will not accept EU membership at any price.

The next few weeks will be the hardest in Mr Verheugen's political career.

He will try to nudge Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders towards a long-delayed settlement so that a united island can join the EU in 2004.

Challenges ahead

If his efforts fail and only the Greek half of Cyprus enters the bloc, he will need all his diplomatic skills to avoid a huge row with Turkey, which is also pressing to start formal membership talks.

He will watch anxiously as EU leaders go behind closed doors to sort out the price of expansion.

With almost half of the EU's 100bn euro budget spent on farm subsidies, Germany has given notice it will not pay a euro more to support farmers in the east, unless the whole system is reformed.

Rauf Denktash, Turkish Cypriot leader, left, and Glafcos Clerides, Greek President of Cyprus,  meets at UN for talks
Negotiations over Cyprus are a tough challenge
But France, which gets the lion's share of farm aid, is stubbornly refusing any cuts.

If an agreement is reached, the overall price for expansion will remain fairly modest - as the gourmets of Brussels have already calculated, expansion would cost each EU citizen the price of a good restaurant meal.

But all that could become academic if, in the upcoming referendum, the people of Ireland reject for a second time the Nice Treaty, which prepares EU institutions for expansion.

It would be a very serious problem, Mr Verheugen told me, and it would certainly delay the whole process.

He compared it to shutting a door in the face of the applicant countries.

Revolutionary idea

Mr Verheugen is no stranger to controversy over referendums.

A few years ago, he raised political hackles in Berlin and Brussels by suggesting that people should be consulted before expansion proceeds.

A referendum poster in Ireland
The Irish vote could seriously delay the process
Given the general public apathy in the EU over the project, the idea was nothing short of revolutionary.

Hounded by journalists, Mr Verheugen said he simply wanted to raise awareness of this historic challenge.

Then, he shrugged his shoulders and said memorably, "shit happens".

Those two little words could come back to haunt him at the end of the year.

But, if all goes to plan, the EU's first - and probably last - enlargement commissioner will become technically unemployed in 2004, when the first 10 applicant countries are set to join the EU.

This "big bang" expansion has been Mr Verheugen's most daring plan.

Britain and France, among others, would have liked a more gradual process.

The proof of the pudding, one British diplomat told me, is whether the EU can digest all 10 at once and still function successfully.

If not, he warned, Guenter Verheugen will be judged by history to have sent the European Union down a blind alley.

But if it all goes well, the German Commissioner will go down in history as one of the architects of Europe's first peaceful reunification.

EU expansion
Who will benefit from enlargement?

Your guide to the European Union: Features, backgrounders and reference guides
Making sense of the EU

See also:

09 Oct 02 | Europe
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