DUBLIN - Assuming the weighty task of steering a crisis-ridden European Union from 15 to 25 members in 2004, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern vowed on Jan. 1 to push ahead with work on the bloc's first constitution while making sure some member states did not form a inner clique that would integrate on a faster level.
As Ireland took over the bloc's presidency for six months, Ahern also said he would work to improve relations between the EU and the United States, placed under strain in 2003 by the divisions caused by the war in Iraq, and renew efforts to help Africa.
Regarding the constitution, which many claim needs to be adopted as 10 new countries from eastern and southern Europe join, Ahern told the BBC radio that he was "confident" that Europe would have a constitution, "but I think there are still very fundamental issues that have to be worked out."
He said Ireland, which is itself one of the EU's smaller countries, would try to avoid letting a core of major member-states move ahead on key issues without the smaller ones. That "would create many disparities and divergences that certainly would not be good for the overall European population," he said.
Ireland faces a particularly heavy agenda during its stint at the helm of EU institutions, its sixth since it joined in 1974.
The country is due to host more than 100 meetings, and major international summits with world leaders are planned, although some of the latter are to be held in Brussels, which is home to many EU institutions.
Besides the constitution - which many observers fear will not be completed during the Irish presidency - Dublin is to oversee the completion of the EU's enlargement into Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean on May 1.
Ten new member states will be coming on board, from the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, through Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia and on down through Malta and Cyprus.
Ireland plans to mark the occasion with a big "day of welcomes" in Dublin and 10 other cities on May 1, an event that might also generate interest in EU-wide elections for a new European Parliament in June.
Ahern is hoping to help patch up trans-Atlantic relations by hosting an EU-U.S. summit.
That could take place in June, when U.S. President George W. Bush will be in Europe for a NATO summit in Istanbul and a World War II anniversary in France, but the White House has yet to confirm a date.
As if all that were not enough, Ahern has also said Ireland will seek to push African issues up the EU's agenda and to revitalize cooperation with the continent.
"There are 291 million people living below the poverty line in sub-Saharan Africa," Ahern said. "An estimated 28 million are infected with HIV/AIDS. Over a dozen conflict situations exacerbate this humanitarian crisis. It is simply not an option for us to turn our backs."
And in a nod to Ireland's overwhelmingly Catholic population, Ahern paid homage both to Pope John Paul II and his homeland Poland, which is one of the 10 states due to become EU members from May 1.
"His Holiness played a significant role throughout his pontificate, in promoting peace and democracy in the former Soviet-controlled states of Eastern Europe," the Irish leader said.
The Netherlands will be next in line after Ireland to assume the agenda-setting presidency, on July 1.