WHERE SHOULD THE NEW START START?

After the European Parliament hearings this week, a positive vote can be expected on Thursday to allow a new European Commission to take office within days, and impart fresh impetus to EU affairs.

The new Parliament too will emerge strengthened by its recent demonstration of influence - and may, as a result, acquire a new maturity born of confidence.

The EU's new Constitutional Treaty is also now moving towards becoming a reality, with Lithuania's early ratification spurring other member states into efforts to give their backing - and raising the chances of creating a momentum towards comprehensive support for the Treaty.

Optimists might therefore be tempted to view November 2004 as a crucial moment for the revitalisation of a Union bruised by recurrent episodes of internal strife.

Realists, however, might perceive another threat to this opportunity: the depressing catalogue of inadequacies revealed today at the heart of one of the EU's most basic functions - its budgetary management.

The EU's Court of Auditors has delivered a report on 2003 which is a stinging indictment of the way the EU sets and controls its expenditure.

The European Commission hailed the Court's report as an endorsement - "for the tenth year running"- of its accounts.

But what an endorsement!

The 400-page report is...

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