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EU: Constitutional Impasse Threatens Enlargement

Croatian President Stjepan Mesic welcomes European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (left) (epa) The two-day summit meeting of EU leaders beginning today in Brussels is likely to confirm that the collapse of the union's constitution means brakes will be put on further enlargement.

BRUSSELS, June 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- "No constitution, no enlargement" is fast becoming the watchword of the EU summit that begins in Brussels on June 15.

EU heads of state and government are expected to state the obvious -- that the EU constitution, rejected by referenda in France and the Netherlands last year, stands no chance of revival before 2009, at the earliest.

Conceived as a means of easing the EU's operations following its last wave of enlargement, in 2004, the project's failure may now have fatally undermined the case for further expansion.

Speaking on the eve of the summit, the president of the EU's executive, the European Commission, made it clear that after Bulgaria and Romania, there will be a pause.

This will most immediately be a blow for the countries of the Western Balkans, led by Croatia, which is already negotiating entry. All were promised eventual membership at an EU summit in 2003, but they now appear powerless to force the EU to make good on the promise.

A Pause, Or A Permanent Freeze?

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (epa)

The argument put forward by the European Commission's president, Jose Manuel Barroso, turns on the contention that the constitution was necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of an EU enlarged to 25 member states in 2004. Adding more states without a constitution would simply compound the problem.

However, EU diplomats say the real debate at the summit will be driven by those member states, led by France, whose publics tend to regard even the previous wave of enlargement in 2004 as a mistake. These countries argue for a longer-term freeze on enlargement. They say the EU must state clearly that the crucial consideration now is the EU's capacity to absorb any new member states.

New member states have been particularly critical of the French-led position, saying such a criterion would not be clearly quantifiable and could be turned into a means of preventing any further enlargement altogether.

The EU needs to push on with efforts to create a "better and more effective system of decision-making."

No decisions about enlargement are expected from this summit. Officials say the European Commission could be instructed to draw up a study about the EU's strategy for further enlargement by early autumn.

The cooling of enthusiasm within the EU for further enlargement has been picked up by most membership hopefuls. Georgia, for one, has decided to reverse its earlier aggressive drive for membership for fear of damaging other ties.

Speaking in Brussels on June 14, Georgia's Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli said his country is not speculating about "any particular time [for] membership in the European Union." At the moment, Georgia's focus is on implementing an 'action plan' of reforms agreed with the EU as part of the EU's Neighborhood Policy, a program that gives its members some privileges in their relationship with the EU but contains no hint of membership.

Forward, Constitution Or No Constitution

The collapse of the constitution is also causing problems within the EU. Important measures envisaged have had to be put on hold, among them the creation of a post for an EU "foreign minister" and closer EU cooperation on "internal security."

The European Commission has initiated moves this year to still try and implement some of the measures outlined in the constitution, and wants the summit to discuss ways of taking them forward in the absence of a constitution.

Barroso said on June 15 that the EU needs, for example, to push on with efforts to create a "better and more effective system of decision-making." This would include enhancing the powers of the European Parliament and ending national vetoes on some issues.

Last month, Barroso floated ambitious plans to move all decision-making in the field of justice and home affairs – that is, to do with the EU's internal security -- from individual member states to the EU. However, EU governments rejected the plan.

Internal security, which covers issues ranging from migration and visas to the fight against terrorism, will, however, be a key issue at this summit.

Last week, the European Commission unveiled a plan to make the union's foreign policy more coordinated. The plan envisages the emergence of a fully fledged EU diplomatic service. But that, too, has proved controversial. Member states that are unwilling to give up their powers argue that the EU has no authority to implement parts of the constitution before the whole text has been ratified.