With two new members, the EU closes the door

2nd January 2007, Comments 0 comments

BRUSSELS, Jan 1, 2007 (AFP) - The European Union rolled out the red carpet for Bulgaria and Romania Monday but they will be the last entrants until reforms are made to ease in new members and enlargement has more public support.

BRUSSELS, Jan 1, 2007 (AFP) - The European Union rolled out the red carpet for Bulgaria and Romania Monday but they will be the last entrants until reforms are made to ease in new members and enlargement has more public support.

"January 1, 2007 is a historic day to celebrate," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said as he welcomed them into Europe's rich club as the 26th and 27th members.

"I congratulate the people and leaders of Bulgaria and Romania for the courage, determination and work in preparing for membership," he said.

Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn added: "They deserve congratulations for impressive reforms in strengthening democracy, modernising their countries, making their justice systems more efficient and independent."

Behind the fanfare, though, the reality is quite different.

The two Balkans countries, by far the poorest of the bloc's states, will be under strict surveillance for the first three years of membership owing to their poor degree of readiness.

Their fellow members, and the Commission, will be able to impose sanctions against the two for failures in their judicial systems or the management of EU funds and food safety.

They could refuse to recognise judicial decisions or suspend farm aid.

Beyond this -- and with deep ramifications for other EU hopefuls like Croatia, Macedonia and Turkey -- the bloc's leaders, just over a fortnight ago, officially put the brakes on further expansion.

"The acceding countries must be ready and able to fully assume the obligations of Union membership and the Union must be able to function effectively and develop," they said in conclusions from their summit.

"The Union will refrain from setting any target dates for accession until the negotiations are close to completion," they said.

This means Croatia could sneak in at the end of the decade, but that Macedonia will continue to wait, while Turkey's candidacy -- which has deeply divided the members -- will drag on, perhaps until 2020.

Mainly Muslim Turkey's long and troubled quest to join has embodied the concerns and fears of many on the continent about the EU's ability to absorb such a large, relatively poor country.

While its strategic importance is undeniable, it would become one of the bloc's two most populous countries, securing voting rights beyond those of traditional EU heavyweights like Britain, France and Italy.

Process aside, the EU's institutions, already creaking under the strain of 25 members are in serious need of reform, much of which had been prepared under the bloc's draft constitution, before anyone else can come aboard.

"The message was -- and is -- clear: no more accessions until some institutional reform is in place," the European Policy Centre think-tank said in a post-summit analysis.

Germany, which takes up the EU's rotating presidency Monday, has the daunting task of trying to take the constitution forward, after it was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005, sparking the bloc's worst crisis.

It plans to draw up a "road map" on how to move the process forward and provide some proposals for resolving the impasse.

EU leaders are keen to take concrete decisions before the next elections at the European Parliament in 2009, but that means any real reform will probably be years away.

Yet they are just as keen to keep open the possibility of membership, particularly to the Balkans countries, well aware of how powerful it can be as a force for reform in troubled regions.

"Enlargement has been a success story for the European Union and Europe as a whole. It has helped to overcome the division of Europe and contributed to peace and stability throughout the continent," they said at their summit.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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