BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) – The 25-member European Union – now comprising eight ex-communist nations and considering membership for Muslim-dominated Turkey – is busily crafting a “Wider Europe” as well.

It would stretch far beyond the EU’s formal borders and aim to lock nearby lands into democracy and good neighborly relations through tailor-made programs of trade and assistance.

But the blueprint for a “ring of friends” making Europe’s neighborhood safe, secure and prosperous comes with complications: There is Israel and its nuclear ambiguity and security morass. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus show creeping authoritarianism. Libya may be emerging from the cold, but it is still a dictatorship. The Balkans remain a scary doorstep.

In many ways, however, this may be the very point.

The EU’s outreach program to sometimes dangerous places beyond its borders marks a dramatic shift in Europe’s perception of how it can play a key – perhaps central – role in world affairs: The strategy is one of exploiting economic clout to both achieve influence on the world stage and shape the rim of Europe. Perhaps Europe might even school America – and its many Euro-cynics – in the merits of persuasion rather than force.

“We want to strengthen the instruments available to us to become a dynamic protagonist in the world. The EU has a leading role to play in securing human rights and democracy,” said Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who is set to take over as the EU external relations commissioner on Nov. 1.

If the United States has in the post-Sept. 11 era become more willing to use its overwhelming military might as a stick to bring nations into line, the EU appears to be awakening to the possibility that the lure of “Old World” good life can be a comparably persuasive carrot in provoking change in areas of chaos and repression.

To see that go-softly approach in action, consider Turkey.

A decade ago, the notion that outside interference might succeed in persuading Turkey to implement meaningful democratic reforms, dismantle a system of judicial repression based largely on torture, curb the power of a military that had dominated society for decades, and loosen state control over the economy would have seemed remote.

But those objectives have largely become a reality. And the reason, of course, is the strict conditions – based on human rights as well as fiscal soundness – that Europe imposed on Turkey to win even a prospect of EU membership.

In economic terms at least, Europe is a genuine superpower.

The EU’s enlargement last May added 75 million consumers, creating a single market of 450 million people, compared to 420 million for NAFTA – the countries of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Its total GDP – well over $11 trillion in 2003 – outstrips, by today’s exchange rate, that of the United States.

It is already the world’s biggest trader, home to one of the world’s most sought-after currencies and – defined as a single unit – is the world’s biggest donor, spending more than $600 million a month in assistance projects on all five continents.

In the decades following World War II, Europe clamored for the need for multilateralism in world affairs as a balance to American might, while relying heavily on the U.S. nuclear umbrella to nurture standards of living that would eventually become the envy of the world.

Now, however, there are signs it’s hoping to offer a serious alternative to American influence in world affairs.

One prominent scholar, Robert Kagan – author of “Of Paradise and Power,” a widely acclaimed analysis of trans-Atlantic alienation – believes the divergences are deep, and threaten to be lasting.

“On major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus: They agree on little and understand one another less and less,” Kagan writes in the opening of his book.

By Nov. 2, the EU hopes to have deals with Ukraine, Moldova, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority under its “New Neighborhood Policy.” Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Tunisia are next.

In some cases the relationship is new; in others, like that of Israel, it amounts to an expansion of existing association agreements.

The aim is, where needed, to steer neighbors toward more democracy, sounder economic policies, sensible defense spending, respect for minorities, sustainable development and peaceful settlement of ethnic disputes.

Their reward: More aid, trade, regular political consultations and – importantly – easy access to the EU market of 455 million consumers.

“We must never forget European integration is not about milk quotas and customs duties,” says Guenter Verheugen, the EU commissioner for expansion matters. “It is about peace, stability and prosperity …”

Negotiations with the first seven candidates have gone fairly well, except for Israel, which complains the EU uses the bonanza of trade and aid to simply grab a more prominent role in the Mideast peace process. Long wary of what it considers pro-Arab views in Europe, Israel wants the EU to continue to play second fiddle to the United States in Middle Eastern diplomacy.

Russia, meanwhile, has brushed aside any suggestion of being part of a multination deal, insisting on special treatment that would reflect its image of itself as a global power.

The EU has proposed an alternative “strategic partnership” with Russia that focuses on four areas: Trade and investments, cooperation in law enforcement and nonproliferation issues, settling border disputes with EU members Estonia and Latvia and visa-free travel for Russians in Western Europe. The EU and President Vladimir Putin hope to sign the accord Nov. 11, though prospects are uncertain.

AP-ES-10-22-04 0148EDT

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