EU heads of state and government agreed today that the EU constitution, rejected by referendums in France and the Netherlands last year, will remain on ice until 2009.
Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, speaking for the EU's current presidency, said there was "no consensus" the night before among leaders over how to proceed. Thus, greater clarity is expected only by late 2008, though there is widespread agreement that the current text of the constitution must change significantly.
Conceived to facilitate the EU's last enlargement, the constitution project's failure now seems to have fatally undermined the case for further expansion.
Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, made the link explicit after the June 15 talks.
"We cannot say 'yes' to an enlarged Europe and say 'no' to institutional reform," he said. "We need a reform of the institutions so that the European Union can be more efficient, more democratic and more coherent in the world."
Romania and Bulgaria's accession cannot be delayed beyond January 1, 2008. So, the blow will be most keenly felt by the countries of the western Balkans, led by Croatia, which is already negotiating entry. All were promised eventual membership by an EU summit in 2003, but now face an indefinite wait.
Barroso's argument turns on the contention that the constitution was necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of an EU of 25 member states -- as it stands today. Adding more states without a constitution would simply compound the problem.
France Against Expansion
However, EU diplomats say the real debate at the summit is being driven by France, whose public tends to regard even the previous enlargement in 2004 as a mistake. France and its allies argue for a longer-term freeze on enlargement.
Reflecting their pressure, the summit is now expected to conclude that "the pace of enlargement must take the union's absorption capacity into account." Critics, mostly hailing from the new member states, say "absorption capacity" is not a clearly quantifiable criterion and could be turned into an instrument of preventing any further enlargement altogether.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair was among those seeking to soften the impact of the summit on enlargement.
"We've left open what is the right way forward," Blair said. "I mean, there is no doubt at all that Europe is going to have to change its rules because we've gone from being a union of 15 to a union of 25, then 27, and then with other countries coming in, perhaps the Balkan states in the future, Europe needs new rules, but what form those rules will take, I think that is an open question."
No decisions issued from the summit. The European Commission was instructed to draw up a paper on the EU’s further enlargement strategy in the autumn.
Barroso today promised a clearer definition of "absorption capacity" by then.
"We are keeping all our [enlargement] commitments, at the same time, recognizing that there are some concerns in our public opinion regarding the scope and the pace of enlargement," Barroso said. "That is why we were proud to receive a mandate of the European Council to present a report the second half of this year concerning the precise absorption capacity of the European Union."
However, EU diplomats admit they expect more behind-the-curtain wrangling, with member states on both sides of the divide trying to influence the commission's analysis.
The leaders also looked at the internal impact of the blocked constitutional process. Barroso has argued the EU must proceed with integration regardless and has suggested the member states pool sovereignty in the field of justice and home affairs, as well as take steps towards establishing a joint diplomatic corps and tighten foreign-policy coordination.
However, most EU member states remain skeptical. Many argue that the EU lacks the legitimacy to pursue further integration until a constitution is in place.
Dealing With Immigration
Although the EU's larger members reject Barroso's calls to give Brussels greater control over immigration policy and related issues, all agree migration and "internal security" are the key challenges facing the union at this point. Tens of thousands of illegal immigrants attempt to reach Europe's southern coast every year, while growing immigrant communities are a frequent source of tensions in many Western European countries.
Reflecting this, the leaders last night held a long, unscripted debate on the issue.
Austrian Chancellor Schuessel said there was a consensus that more cooperation is needed with source and transit countries of illegal immigrants, especially Africa.
Schuessel said it was also agreed that those immigrants that do reach Europe must be better integrated into their host societies.
"Internally, there was a clear consensus that we must put a lot of importance on [the need for immigrants to] learn the language and sign up to the values -- tolerance, human rights, women's rights, the rule of law," Schuessel said. "There can be no compromises here. These are the things that make Europe what it is."
Officials say southern EU countries are asking for large-scale financial support to help them cope with the onslaught of immigrants.