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Slovenia officially takes over EU presidency

Slovenia officially took over the presidency of the EU Council from Portugal on Monday, as Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado handed over his Slovenian counterpart Dimitrij Rupel an EU flag at a symbolic ceremony in Portugal’s Madeira.

Officially being president of the EU council of ministers until midnight Monday, Amado said the Iberian nation’s 6-month tenure in office had been a success with “the objectives we set ourselves met.“ The presidency is shifting from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, from the West to the East, Rupel was quoted as saying by the Foreign Ministry, the Slovenian national news agency STA reported. “We are in for an offensive of friendship, partnership, neighborly relations, respect, understanding and solidarity,“ he said.

Slovenia, an EU member since 2004, will hold the position until June 30, 2008, when it hands over the presidency to France. The ceremony was hosted by Alberto Joao Jardim, the president of the regional government of Madeira. After the ceremony Rupel and Amado held a working meeting focusing on topical issues such as Kosovo and the Middle East, as well as the Lisbon Strategy and the expansion of the EU’s zone of freedom, security and justice. Slovenia, the first EU newcomer to chair the presidency, will face the daunting responsibility of overseeing a common EU policy as Kosovo prepares to declare independence from Serbia just weeks after Slovenia begins its 6-month stint at the helm.

Serbia, Kosovo and Slovenia were all once within the Yugoslav federation and Western officials expect Slovenia to use its ties to help reach a solution for Kosovo. The United States and some EU countries have said they would recognize Kosovo’s independence because it has not been under Serbia’s control since 1999, when NATO bombing forced the pullout of Serbian forces fighting against ethnic Albanian rebels. Serbia, backed by Russia, insists Kosovo -- considered the cradle of Serbia’s medieval state and religion -- should remain part of its territory, and has urged more negotiations with Kosovo Albanians.

Other countries such as Cyprus, Spain, Slovakia, Romania and Greece have expressed fears that Kosovo’s independence would encourage separatist movements elsewhere. Deep divisions on the issue could lead to a rift that would jeopardize the EU’s common foreign policy. Besides Kosovo, Slovenia will also be responsible for shepherding through ratification of the Lisbon treaty, a trimmed-down version of the failed EU constitution.

This Alpine country of 2 million people, sandwiched between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, has made swift and impressive bounds since declaring independence in 1991. In 2004, it joined the EU and NATO. A year ago, it became the 13th nation using the euro. On Dec. 21, it joined the EU’s borderless zone. (