PRAGUE, May 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The enthusiasm among Eastern European nations to join the European Union is matched only by the reluctance of some established members to admit them.
The massive expansion of 2004, when the EU took in 10 new, mainly ex-communist states, has caused strains that are still not resolved. A European Commission survey finds for instance that 80 percent of Germans worry that eastward expansion is having an impact on jobs. So do 72 percent of French and 63 percent of EU citizens generally.
Set against this is the irrepressible optimism of applicant countries that they can find their future in united Europe.
Montenegro has just broken away from Serbia, with the independence movement driven by the idea that it will be easier to join Europe without being shackled to Belgrade. Croatia is progressing despite setbacks; Ukraine has EU membership as its top priority; the Caucasus states mention their hopes frequently; and Turkey -- the most controversial candidate -- is working aggressively to fulfill the criteria set by Brussels. Bulgaria and Romania may join the union as early as next year.
Supporting Democracy Movements
The dilemma for the EU is that rejection of all or any one of these aspirants could result in political or economic instability in what is already a very fragile part of the world.
Political analyst Armando Garcia of the Bertelsmann Foundation in Germany says that democratic leaders in these countries need the lure of EU membership to carry their populations with them.
"The European perspective is a kind of power," Garcia said. "It’s the magnetic power of the European Union, which is reflected by the will to accede to the EU. It empowers the political actors within the countries to make their reforms and to reinforce the hard transformation processes.”
Alfred Pypers of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, agrees that promoting stability was an overriding argument in favor of the last wave of enlargement.
"And it has worked very well," Pypers said. "It's obvious that the former Soviet satellites needed to be incorporated into the European Union. That was very good for European stability, but now in most West European capitals, the feeling is rather that well, we need to have breaks in the process."
EU foreign ministers met near Vienna on May 28 and agreed to give increased priority to something called "absorption capacity" -- meaning the bloc must be able to absorb any future new member without suffering disruption.
Austria, which currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, has said absorption capacity should be rated equally as part of the "Copenhagen criteria" for membership -- namely an applicant must be a stable democracy under the rule of law and with respect for human rights, plus have a functioning market economy.
Such a move would give the EU a plausible mechanism for at least delaying membership for any applicant over a long period.
Attitudes Mixed In Western Europe
It is hard to overestimate the strength of public feeling in Western Europe on EU englargement matters.
One of Brussels' biggest-ever projects, the creation a constitution for a united Europe, was brought to a crashing halt last year by French and Dutch voters.
Analysts conclude that the main reason for their rejection of this project was fear over the pace of expansion, which was seen as threatening their economies with low-paid labor, creating overwhelming immigration flows, and endangering well-established social protections.
The EU foreign ministers decided it is too early to pick up the pieces and to see what, if anything, can be rescued from the constitution.
"It was a bridge too far," Pypers said. "The European leaders should have recognized that after the 'big bang' of [the 2004] enlargement, the European public were not very keen to face [so soon] another big European project."
Even with the current 25 members, EU structures and mechanisms will certainly need streamlining if the bloc's policies are to be coherent.
And those problems would only grow were membership to increase further to as many as 30 -- which would be the case if the current aspirants were admitted.