Demonstrators clash again with police at EU summit

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The Independent Online

Demonstrators and police again clashed outside the EU summit in Gothenburg today, as on the inside the Irish Prime Minister told his European colleagues that his country needs "an extended period" to reflect on its referendum rejecting the EU expansion.

Hundreds of anti–EU protesters trying to move toward the conference centre, where the summit is. being held, clashed with riot police, smashing windows and cars and erecting flaming barricades after they were pushed back to a central square, less than a half a mile from the venue.

The activists, some wearing balaclavas, threw sticks, cobblestones and other debris as they battled with police in the second day of clashes in this southwester port , Around 25,000 demonstrators gathered for the EU meetings that started yesterday with a visit by US President George Bush.

Around 200 demonstrators were arrested in yesterday's confrontations

Prime Minister Bertie Ahern assured the other 14 EU leaders that his country remained committed to European integration, including the eastward expansion.

He added it was too early to say when a second referendum will be staged.

"We genuinely need ... an extended period of reflection," he told an opening session of a two–day EU summit.

The 15 EU leaders began their regular two–day summit today after Bush left for Poland as part of a European tour.

Mr Ahern said the Irish 'no' to the EU's Treaty of Nice – which contains institutional reforms to make expansion possible – was rooted in ignorance because governments do a poor job of explaining the complicated ways of EU affairs.

"The result of our referendum graphically underscores what I believe all of us around this table already know: that there is, unfortunately, a widespread sense of disconnection between the institutions of the Union and its citizens," Mr Ahern said.

He said this leads to "many misconceptions and misunderstandings" in public opinion about such complicated and politically sensitive undertakings as launching a single currency or opening the door to poor neighbors who for decades languished under communism.

He cited a "widespread sense of disconnection" between EU policy–makers and the European–in–the–street. He added he has appointed a "National Forum on Europe" to craft a more educated public debate about what it is that EU is trying to achieve.

The other EU leaders came here, determined to send a signal to a dozen aspiring newcomers the door remains open despite Ireland's embarrassing referendum result.

The summit began amid a consensus the Irish 'no' cannot block the EU's plans to almost double in size – Europe's most ambitious undertaking ever crowning the end of the Cold War.

The Treaty of Nice, which provided sweeping institutional EU housekeeping reforms, was cobbled together in five days of fractious bargaining in December.

On arrival, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said "the decision of the Irish people has to be respected but it must not block the (EU) enlargement process."

He said the summit must send "a signal that the enlargement process will be continued." He rejected a renegotiation of the Nice treaty, which paves the way for accepting a dozen new members, mostly from former communist countries in Eastern Europe.

The EU has set no entry dates but the most promising candidates may join as early as 2004.

The Irish rejection came as negotiations with the candidate countries – Estonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia, Cyprus, Malta, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Latvia and Lithuania – made good progress.