Leading Article: Greece's presidency tests the Twelve

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The Independent Online
THE GREEK presidency of the European Union will test the Union as severely as Greece itself. The government that now takes over the business of the Union is led by a sick and elderly man who has made his new wife his chief assistant. The top ranks of the civil service have been almost wholly replaced by new people, sweeping away many with deep experience of European affairs.

The foreign minister of this government has called Germany 'a bestial giant with a child's brain'. His deputy, who will chair meetings of foreign ministers, has called the Turkish government 'muggers . . . dragging bloody boots cross the carpets of Europe'.

The country these men lead is widely regarded in Brussels as more of a liability than an asset to the Union. Its economy is the worst performer of the Twelve and the gap with the others is widening. It relies on billions of pounds in subsidies from Brussels for about 10 per cent of its GNP. A substantial proportion of these subsidies is believed to drift into private pockets, regardless of the government in power, so corrupt is the political culture of Greece. Andreas Papandreou himself, risen from the political dead to return as prime minister, only narrowly escaped conviction for corruption after his last term in office.

With another pounds 13bn of 'cohesion funds' pledged for the next six years, the enthusiasm of Greek politicians for European integration is easily understood. The enthusiasm is not reciprocated. The particular fear now is that the Union will be further burdened by Greece's obsession with Macedonia, its sympathy for Serbia and its long hostility to Turkey.

If the next six months go as badly as everyone expects, the case for institutional reform will be strengthened. With enlargement looming, the Union may no longer be able to afford the uneven quality and discontinuity of the rotating presidency in its present form.

Indeed, Greece itself is proposing that a committee of 'wise men' be set up to study a future European constitution. It would be a nice irony if Greece's tenure of the presidency brought forward reforms, such as presidential partnerships of large and small countries with longer tenure, that had the effect of preventing Greece from holding the presidency on its own again.