Athens takes the helm in a hostile Europe: Greece's presidency of the European Union will test the co-operation of member states, writes Tony Barber, East Europe Editor

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The Independent Online
GREECE takes over the presidency of the European Union at midnight tonight in a climate of barely concealed hostility and suspicion between Athens and some of the EU's other 11 member states. The six-month Greek presidency is likely to test to the limit the EU's declared aim of forging a common foreign policy, particularly in the Balkans.

'Just days before Greece officially takes over the EU presidency, its relationship with its partners could not reach a worse point,' Kyra Adam, the diplomatic correspondent of the independent newspaper Eleftherotypia, wrote this week. 'They are systematically and ostentatiously ignoring Greece and showing complete disregard for the basic observance of the principle of Community solidarity.'

The main arguments concern relations with Serbia, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, Cyprus and Turkey. They have grown increasingly sharp as the moment approaches for Belgium to hand over the presidency to Greece, and they have also been affected by the victory in last October's elections of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok).

Greece's new Minister for European Affairs, Theodoros Pangalos, astonished other EU states last month by describing Germany as 'a giant with bestial strength and the mind of a child'. He also referred to the Turks as 'muggers' who were 'dragging their blood-stained boots across the carpets of Europe'. Mr Pangalos will chair the EU's council of foreign ministers for the next six months.

He promises that Greece's presidency will represent the EU as a whole. But other countries are concerned that Greece's warm relations with Serbia - a reflection of their shared suspicions of Albania, Turkey, Bulgaria and Yugoslav Macedonia - may hinder negotiations aimed at ending the Bosnian war. Willy Claes, the Belgian Foreign Minister, said yesterday that the EU should consider strengthening sanctions against Serbia, but it is hard to imagine that Greece will guide EU policy down that road.

Athens may seek to develop a Russian proposal that calls for freezing sanctions against Serbia before a Bosnian peace agreement is reached. The proposal, unveiled in Brussels earlier this month, met objections from most EU countries.

For its part, Serbia is delighted that Greece is taking over the presidency. 'Greece is the one EU country that has had an impartial approach to the Yugoslav crisis from the very start. Its presidency will certainly bring some refreshing views and correct this policy of double standards that the EU has conducted over the Yugoslav crisis, particularly the Bosnian one,' said Vladislav Jovanovic, the Foreign Minister of rump Yugoslavia.

The Macedonian question also continues to dog Greece's relations with its partners. Germany, France, Britain, Italy and several smaller states pointedly established diplomatic relations with the former Yugoslav republic shortly before the start of the Greek presidency. Greece refuses to do so on the grounds that the republic's constitution, state emblems and use of the term Macedonia indicate a desire to seize the northern Greek province of the same name.

Greece may use the presidency to highlight evidence of co-operation between Yugoslav Macedonia and Turkey, Greece's most bitter foe. Only last week the commander of the Macedonian Air Force, Mile Manolev, went to Ankara for talks with his Turkish counterpart, Halis Burhan, on equipping Macedonia's tiny air force.

Mr Pangalos said in November that his socialist government would treat Cyprus as 'the number-one national issue' and would raise it 'everywhere Greece conducts foreign policy and has an international presence'. The Greek presidency will almost certainly seek to give a higher profile to the Cyprus problem, concentrating on the Turkish occupation of the island's north and raising the question of admitting Cyprus into the EU. Other EU countries favour good relations with Turkey because of its important regional role since the Soviet Union's collapse and because of its proximity to Iraq.

Like former incumbents of the presidency, Greece will find it hard to exploit the position for its own ends, since many decisions require majority votes. Other issues, such as fighting economic recession and expanding the EU to admit Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden, will also take up Greek time and effort.

But Athens will be able to set a framework for the EU's conduct of business and influence the tone of the EU's public voice. Previous Greek presidencies produced frequent disputes between Athens and its allies, and the EU will count its blessings if this time the atmosphere is a little less acrimonious.