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Swedes host damage-control summit

By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

GOTHENBURG, Sweden (CNN) -- Occupying the rotating EU presidency for the first time, the Swedes had hoped to give a boost to two issues facing the union: the enlargement process, designed to bring another dozen countries into the EU over the next decade, and the environment, a cause dear to most of the Nordic countries.

Instead they find themselves in Gothenburg presiding over a damage limitation summit and playing host to a U.S. president who has infuriated environmentalists the world over by rejecting the Kyoto agreement on climate change.

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Swedish Premier Goran Persson also has to join other leaders in picking up the pieces after voters in Ireland, one of the European Union's smallest states, failed to ratify the Treaty of Nice, which prepares the way for the 15-nation grouping to expand to 27 or 28 members over the next few years.

On the environment, the Swedes have not been mollified by U.S. President George W. Bush's promise on the eve of his European trip to fund further climate change research and develop technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"President Bush has basically repeated what he said earlier. We think it is time to move on from analysing the issues towards action," says Kjell Larsson, the Swedish environment minister. The EU nations have confirmed they stand behind the Kyoto Protocol and are ready to proceed with its ratification.

On a wider front, the Europeans are nervous of what they see as a new phase of American unilateralism on the environment, trade, defence and one-off issues like a ban on land mines and an international court for terrorist offences.

They are probing Bush to gauge whether he means what he says about cooperating with them as traditional allies or whether his focus is really on Asia and Latin America.

The EU has its own problems, too. Just when it wanted to demonstrate its solidarity and potential as a power bloc to a new American president, the strains are showing: EU states are squabbling over regional aid budgets and free movement of workers as they assess the consequences of the planned enlargement.

EU leaders are also split over the pace and extent of integration: A series of national leaders have called for differing constitutional reforms, and complaints are growing that voters are becoming alienated from EU institutions, as evidenced by a mere 30 percent turnout for the Irish referendum on the Nice treaty.

Ireland was the only country staging a referendum on the treaty, which was rejected by 54 percent of voters. Last September, Denmark was the only country to stage a referendum on joining the single European currency, which voters there also rejected. Now there is the prospect that opponents of enlargement in other EU countries will demand the right to vote on the arrangements too.

Applicant countries are growing increasingly restless over what they see as EU foot-dragging, and the Swedes had hoped to crystallize entry dates for some of them in Gothenburg. Following the Irish vote, that now seems unlikely.

The EU countries have to decide what can be done to help embarrassed Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern encourage his country to support the Nice treaty in a second referendum before the deadline for ratification at the end of 2002.

In addition to meeting Bush, the Gothenburg summit will welcome new European faces as well. Silvio Berlusconi, the controversial new Italian prime minister, will be attending his first EU function since his brief period in power in 1994.

Jack Straw, the new foreign secretary in the UK after the surprise demotion of his predecessor, Robin Cook, will be attending his first summit in his new capacity.

Also, after UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's second landslide election victory last week, his European counterparts will be looking for any signals that he intends to press ahead with a campaign to take Britain into the single European currency, the euro.

• European Union
• Treaty of Nice

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