Europe: At last, the EU has something tangible to show its people

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The euro may almost be upon us, but this has hardly been Europe's year. The first eight months of 2001 were overshadowed by tensions with the US, a referendum rebuff in Ireland and by anti-globalisation riots that left one person dead and chunks of two European cities in ruins. Then Europe struggled to cope with the impact of 11 September – politically, economically and diplomatically.

It was in the elegant Swedish city of Gothenburg in June that anti-globalisation protesters seized the agenda as never before. President Bush was in town and there was a list of divisive items to discuss including Kyoto, the environment treaty which America had repudiated, and US plans for a missile defence system. But attention was soon focused outside the conference hall where protesters outnumbered an ill-prepared Swedish police force. Without water canons or tear gas the police shot and wounded two people as part of the city centre was torn apart.

A month later, when the G8 met in Genoa, anarchist cells orchestrated a prolonged bout of violence and the destruction was worse; one man was shot dead while attacking a Land Rover belonging to the paramilitary carabinieri. Protesters were beaten savagely when their headquarters were raided by security forces.

Politically, things were hardly calm, either. Ireland rejected the Nice Treaty in its referendum, raising the possibility that the agreement may be impossible to ratify. That blow, combined with the street protests, prompted unprecedented soul-searching about the future of the EU. And there were important political changes in Italy which brought a discordant voice to the European negotiating table in the form of the new premier, centre-right businessman Silvio Berlusconi. The 11 September changed the tone but also shaped the agenda for the remainder of the year. Tension with America was replaced by an impressive new mood of solidarity.

Europe rushed through unprecedented legislation on judicial cooperation, putting in place plans for an EU-wide arrest warrant which will apply not just to terrorist offences but to more than 30 other serious crimes. Its reaction to the economic downturn was not so sure as finance ministers pressurised the European Central Bank with varying degrees of subtlety to reduce interest rates.

And three of the big European powers, Germany, France and the UK, angered the rest by getting together on the eve of October's Ghent summit, while excluding the rest. (Tony Blair compounded the problems with an ill-advised dinner in Downing Street to which the guest list had to be steadily expanded as EU leaders demanded invitations).

But at least there was unity behind the policy. In contrast to the Gulf War, when European governments took different positions, this time all 15 remained signed up to strong support for the USA. And more promising work was going on. The EU named 10 countries as possible new entrants to its club – laying the ground for a "big bang" enlargement as early as 2004. It started a new review of its functions which will help a new round of reforms, leading to a clarification of the EU's powers, and possibly to a European constitution. Despite diplomatic hitches with Greece, a new rapid reaction force has been declared operational (although it has yet to be deployed).

There was progress on foreign affairs as Europe took a greater role on the world stage; it was, for example, instrumental in seeing off the threat of civil war in Macedonia. Most of all, preparations for the euro have been solid. That means the EU finally has something tangible to show 300 million of its people.

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