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High-flown rhetoric greets 25-strong EU

European leaders ushered in a new era of integration with a 25-nation union yesterday amid high-flown rhetoric, flag-raising ceremonies and verse from Ireland's Nobel prize poet Seamus Heaney.

Heads of government gathered for an emotional ceremony in Dublin's Phoenix Park hours after the new members' accession was celebrated in firework displays across Europe.

Bertie Ahern, the Prime Minister of Ireland, the nation currently holding the EU presidency, said the advent of eight ex-communist nations, plus Cyprus and Malta, marked "a new beginning for Europeans". He added: "May 1, 2004 is a day of hope and opportunity". Tony Blair echoed the view saying the expansion was "good news for Europe and good news for Britain".

From the Baltic to the Mediterranean there were celebrations, but the main ceremony was in Dublin where children presented the leaders with national flags that were then hoisted alongside the EU's blue and gold emblem.

Aleksander Kwasniewski, the Polish president, shed a tear as he hugged leaders. Mr Heaney, in his poem "Beacons at Bealtaine" hailed the "homecoming" of the eastern European nations. Last night the 25 leaders sat down to salmon, duckling and wild berries, with, symbolically, wine from the Simcic vineyard which straddles the Italian, Slovenian border. Behind the rhetoric there was acceptance that the admission of 10, mainly poor, nations, posed unparalleled economic and political challenges for the EU. A constitution to reform decision- making procedures should be agreed by June. But yesterday leaders conceded this work would be threatened if just one nation did not ratify the treaty.

Mr Ahern said there would be "enormous difficulties" in continuing decision-making with the current rules, adding that Christian traditions and values would probably be included in the preamble of the draft constitution, an issue which is highly controversial in some countries.

But neither Mr Ahern nor Romano Prodi, the European Commission's president, gave much momentum to the idea floated by the French President, Jacques Chirac, that nations not ratifying within two years should leave the EU.

Yesterday's meeting put Mr Blair face to face with the new Spanish premier, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who said that the enlarged EU would be one that defended "peace, international law, the strengthening of the United Nations".

Ireland, meanwhile, drew up massive security, with 5,000 police and 2,000 soldiers on standby to prevent demonstrators disrupting events. A rally of about 1,000 protesters failed to overshadow proceedings, but in the evening police used water cannon to disturb protesters in a suburb four miles from the leaders' meeting after scuffles broke out.

Meanwhile Pat Cox, the European Parliament's president, commented on the press, saying he was "sickened by the reduction of this wonderful moment into tabloid headlines in so many places - who should know better about floods of migrants, for example. The only flood we have seen is a flood of tabloid ink and prejudice."