Denmark takes over the rotating EU presidency next week determined to push forward the biggest and most ambitious expansion in the union's history.
The chief goal of the Danish presidency is to wrap up negotiations with 10 prospective new members. If all goes as planned, the EU will become a group of 25 in 2004. But success is far from certain.
Nobody said it's going to be easy, but Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen is putting on a brave face as his government embarks on one of the most daunting challenges ever undertaken by an EU presidency. The goal is ensuring that 10 new members - Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus - are admitted to the club in 2004.
As he emerged from talks with a European Parliament delegation on Monday, Mr. Rasmussen was brimming with optimism. But he acknowledged there are four huge potential stumbling blocks on the path to expansion.
"We have a clear goal - expansion - but we have some hurdles to overcome. Firstly, we have to have a discussion concerning agriculture, the level of direct income supports to farmers in new member states. Secondly, the unsolved Cyprus problem. Thirdly, we have the Kaliningrad problem, and fourthly, we have to prepare for a new Irish referendum," Mr. Rasmussen said.
The farm subsidies issue is potentially the most damaging, because it could wreck the entire process. Germany, the biggest contributor to the EU budget, is concerned that its bill could double to 20 billion euros a year if farm subsidies are suddenly extended to 10 new countries. With general elections coming up, this is understandably a delicate subject for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and progress on the issue is considered impossible until after the election.
The Irish referendum is another matter. It's not a subject for negotiation. Irish voters must reverse their earlier rejection of the Nice treaty, which was effectively a "no" vote on expansion. The referendum failed last year, largely because Irish voters were afraid Ireland would lose its neutrality as the EU takes on a military role.
But European Parliament President Pat Cox, on a recent visit to Copenhagen, said he was hopeful his fellow Irishmen will change their minds. "I hope with the renewed determination by the Irish government to actively and determinedly campaign, the results of last year may be reversed. But there is no other Plan B. And the challenge for Ireland is to reflect on all of the consequences of maintaining the vote of last year," Mr. Cox said.
Two other big headaches are the long-simmering Greek-Turkish dispute over Cyprus and Moscow's demand for a corridor through what will be EU territory to its detached Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, which was isolated from the rest of Russia when the Soviet Union broke apart.
But if all these obstacles can be overcome - and it's a big if - the prize will be a historic expansion that will at last bridge the Cold War gap between eastern and western Europe. There is general agreement that this last round will be bruising, but as the EU's center of gravity shifts for the next six months to Denmark, the prize is in sight.