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Some Balkan states may find EU’s door closed 10 avril 2006

Posted by Acturca in EU / UE, South East Europe / Europe du Sud-Est.
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Financial Times (London, England)

April 7, 2006 Friday

By Christopher Condon and George Parker          

Olli Rehn, the European Union enlargement commissioner, blinked into the camera lights as he lined up for the photocall in the autocrat-chic splendour of Nicolae Ceausescu's People's Palace.

Alongside him in what is now the Romanian parliament in Bucharest were the smiling leaders of south-east Europe, hoping that one day they can swap their countries' communist past for a future in the European Union. Mr Rehn's uncomfortable message yesterday was that things might not be that simple.

While Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia are assured of EU entry, Mr Rehn fears an anti-enlargement backlash poses a serious threat to the prospect of bringing the rest of the Balkans into the western club.

He flinches at the thought of Europe turning its back on a region steeped in blood and the scene of nationalist conflicts ancient and modern. "The political memory of human beings is unfortunately very short," he says in his barely audible monotone. "If we go wobbly on enlargement we risk a nationalist backlash, and we can't afford that."

The Finnish commissioner has a fight on his hands to keep Europe's doors open to Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, as western Europe goes cold on enlargement. Turkey, which has already started membership talks, is an even bigger test.

Although the four western Balkan countries have a population of about 25m – just over half that of Poland – the leaders of countries such as Germany and France are pondering aloud whether the 25-strong EU has already grown too big. Some French and Dutch voters who rejected the Union's constitutional treaty last year seemed to agree.

The ability of the EU to take in new members – its "absorption capacity" in euro-jargon – will be discussed by foreign ministers next month and by heads of government at a summit in June.

Yesterday in the Romanian capital, the EU establishment was encouraging the leaders of south-east Europe to help themselves, through the extension of a Central European Free Trade Area to cover the western Balkans.

Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner, calls the agreement an "apprenticeship" for membership of Europe's single market, a test of whether they can co-operate and reform economies ready for entry to join the Union's own free trade area of 450m people.

Mr Mandelson argues that the political elites have failed to explain the two-way benefits of enlargement, and that the widening of the club's borders has not led to the end of European integration.

He contends that enlargement has pushed the EU into new areas of co-operation, notably in tackling cross-border crime, illegal migration and terrorism. "Far from impeding integration, enlargement has been a motor driving it," he says.

Mr Mandelson does concede, however, that Europe needs to modernise its internal rules to stop it breaking down as new members join – and that means implementing parts of the EU's moribund constitution.

The fate of the treaty will be back on the agenda in 2007; Germany is among the countries arguing that future enlargement can only take place after institutional reforms, such as changes to the club's cumbersome voting rules and the appointment of a full-time EU president and foreign minister.

Critics of the pace of EU expansion will also argue that the Union needs a modernised budget, reduced spending on farm subsidies and a focus on economic growth before it admits poor new agrarian countries. That budget review begins in 2008.

But Mr Rehn says that Europe "cannot take a sabbatical" from the enlargement process while it sorts out its internal rules and future financing: he wants the club to remain fully engaged with the reformers in the Balkans and to keep its doors open. That is a political test both for the elite in western Europe and for the Balkan leaders gathered yesterday under Ceausescu's chandeliers.

Wolfgang Schussel, Austria's chancellor and holder of the rotating EU presidency, says western Europe has a "psychological problem" with enlarging the club into the Balkans. Mr Rehn hopes it does not turn into a real and bloody one.

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