EU Door swings shut behind new boys

Door swings shut behind new boys as EU's welcome is exhausted
By George Parker in Brussels

Bulgaria and Romania may be coming in to the European Union but the door is starting to swing shut behind them.

The accession of the two Black Sea states completes the "big bang" expansion of the EU, which began in 2004 with eight former communist countries in central and eastern Europe.

The healing of Europe's cold war divisions was a relatively easy political message for western leaders to sell but each new round of enlargement takes the EU into ever more difficult terrain.

"You could sell the Czech Republic, Hungary or Poland joining," says a senior EU official involved in the enlargement process. "People knew about the Prague Spring or Budapest 1956 or Solidarity.

"With Bulgaria and Romania it is more difficult to make the case on an emotional level, and it's going to keep getting harder."

According to a Euro-barometer opinion poll this year, some 53 per cent of EU citizens viewed enlargement with "indifference, fear, annoyance or frustration", even if a narrow majority - 55 per cent - still felt positive about the process.

The symptoms of enlargement fatigue became glaringly obvious last year when French and Dutch voters rejected the EU constitution, with No voters citing the club's eastward expansion as a prime reason for their dissatisfaction.

For France, the expansion diluted the original essence of a western club of relatively wealthy countries largely operating under the political direction of Paris. Other founder members fear that the EU has grown too big, too fast.

For the Dutch, migration was a big factor, as it now is in Britain (which was traditionally one of the biggest supporters of enlargement). The arrival of up to 600,000 east European workers in the UK between May 2004 and June this year outweighed anything the British government or European Commission had predicted.

Although new EU members in central and eastern Europe have taken enormous strides since the fall of communism, recent political developments have reinforced the fears of sceptics in "old Europe".

Poland's ruling party has been accused of populist nationalism, Slovakia's new coalition has been criticised for fanning xenophobia and Hungary's prime minister provoked demonstrations when he admitted he had lied to win a general election.

Bulgaria and Romania's failure to tackle organised crime and corruption fully or to prepare their admin-istrative systems to handle billions of euros of EU aid has done little to build confidence.

José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, insists enlargement benefits both old and new member states. "An enlarged Europe counts for more when we speak with China or Russia than before," he said.

But he concedes Europe needs a pause before adding to a club of 27, whose population will approach 490m people. In particular, he says it would be "unwise" to expand the Union further before it upgraded its creaking institutions, through the ratification of parts of the EU constitution.

The accession of Bulgaria and Romania is a natural break point. Only Croatia and Turkey have already started membership talks: the former is unlikely to be ready to join before 2011 at the earliest, the latter's progress towards the EU will be tortuous and may not achieve its goal.

From now on, the going gets tough. Bulgaria and Romania may have been poor (both had GDPs of 31 per cent the EU average in 2004) but other potential newcomers in the western Balkans - Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia - will be even harder and more costly to absorb. And, like Turkey, they carry heavy political baggage. While all of those countries have at least had their "membership perspective" recognised by the EU, others on the fringes face a long spell in the cold. Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia may have to wait many years before the symptoms of "enlargement fatigue" in the EU start to subside.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

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