Europe's leaders are to gather Wednesday in Athens for a historic two-day summit that will see 10 new states accept provisions for European Union membership. But the gathering could be overshadowed by persistent divisions about the war in Iraq.
This Athens summit was long intended to be a celebration of European unity, capped by a ceremony to welcome 10 new members into the European Union.
But following months of wrangling between European leaders over the war in Iraq, that hoped-for party atmosphere has soured. Instead, as pro-war leaders like British Prime Minister Tony Blair meet with anti-war advocates like French President Jacques Chirac, the best that can be hoped for is what analysts are calling a kiss-and-make-up session.
At worst, bitter divisions could open up once again between the two camps over the war and the EU role in rebuilding Iraq, overshadowing what is a crucial meeting in the history of the European Union.
The highlight of the summit is Wednesday, when seven nations from the former Soviet bloc plus Malta, Slovenia, and the Greek half of partitioned Cyprus will sign an accession treaty to the European Union. When those states formally join the European Union in May 2004, the Union's landmass will stretch from the Atlantic in the west, to the Baltic Sea in the east, from the Arctic in Sweden to the cusp of the Middle East in Cyprus.
The European Union will contain more than 450 million citizens, with another 100 million set to join from Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey in the next few years.
But the scale of the European Union is itself a cause for concern among current member states, who are due to discuss a new European constitution. The charter, which is being drafted by former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, is the subject of yet more bitter argument between European leaders. They are divided on how much power should devolve from individual nation states to the supranational institutions of the expanded European Union.
Meanwhile, Greece, which had hoped the ceremony would be the highlight of its six-month EU presidency, is preparing for a security nightmare in which legions of anti-war and anti-globalization protesters are set to confront more than 10,000 police. The center of Athens is to be completely closed to traffic for much of Wednesday and Thursday and ancient sites where the ceremonies are taking place are also off-limits to visitors.
With top-level five-man delegations from 41 countries in town, the summit is not just being seen as a test of Europe's powers of recuperation, but also of Greece's security capabilities, just a year before the Athens Olympic Games.