HLUBOKA NAD VLTAVOU, Czech Republic -- Enlargement may not be dead, but it is certainly showing few signs of life.
That was the impression given at a two-day informal meeting of EU foreign ministers held at a scenic southern Bohemian castle in the Czech town of Hluboka nad Vltavou.
In Western Europe, already skeptical publics have been further put off the notion of further expanding the borders of the EU's circle of stability and prosperity by a worsening global economic downturn.
Mindful first of all of the upcoming elections of the European Parliament in June, governments are loath to be associated with what is being seen as an increasingly unpopular process.
Many use the prolonged hiatus in the ratification process of the EU's Lisbon Treaty as an excuse. Ireland, which rejected the treaty last year, is expected to hold another referendum in October.
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic, currently in the throes of a governmental crisis, appears unlikely to give its approval to the treaty anytime soon.
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet told reporters that the fate and significance of the treaty cast a long shadow over the EU ministers' enlargement debate.
"I guess that there are different opinions still on this -- if the [absence of the] Lisbon Treaty can be an obstacle or not," Paet said. "I guess that a majority of countries will see that the Lisbon Treaty cannot be an obstacle, but still we also hear some voices that [say], 'No, no, no. Before the Lisbon Treaty entering into force, we cannot make longer steps." Lisbon Treaty Is Key
Diplomats say French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told his colleagues point-blank that "without the Lisbon Treaty, the EU cannot move ahead with enlargement."
Once in force, the Lisbon Treaty would significantly streamline decision-making processes within the now 27-member EU.
Germany expressed a similar view, but officials say the awkward Christian-Democrat and Social-Democrat coalition in Berlin will be increasingly paralyzed ahead of federal elections in late September.
Both France and Germany appear prepared to make an exception for Croatia.
Chancellor Angela Merkel told the German Bundestag on March 23 that Germany has "Croatia and its accession talks in [its] sights." But, she warned, even if the Lisbon Treaty is fully ratified, "a certain consolidation phase" must follow.
The sentiments expressed by France and Germany today have a wide appeal in Western Europe.
"We must show concern not only for what people think of us in the Western Balkans, but also for what our own voters think," on official was quoted as telling the meeting.
There were opposing voices today, mostly emanating from Eastern and Northern Europe.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said "enlargement is in the interest of Europe." 'Must Not Be Punished'
Sweden's Carl Bildt was quoted as arguing that the Western Balkan countries "must not be punished" for problems some member states may have with their electorates.
Vygaudas Usackas of Lithuania told reporters he believes the EU must look not only to the Western Balkans -- which were given an iron-clad guarantee of eventual EU accession in 2003 -- but beyond, to the former Soviet Union.
"EU enlargement was, is, and will remain the powerful force for good which facilitates the necessary reforms in the Western [Balkans] and Eastern Europe," Usackas said. "And here I speak both about the Western Balkan countries whom we will meet over lunch, but also countries such as Ukraine and Georgia."
There were suggestions today the EU could divert some of its pre-accession funds earmarked for candidates Turkey, Croatia, and Macedonia to help prop up the ailing Serbian economy. No sums were mentioned.
There was also criticism of the slowing rate of reforms in some Western Balkan countries.
A German official, standing in for Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, told his EU audience that Berlin wants to see "more reforms and less nationalist talk" in the region.
Among the three current candidate countries, only Croatia has a realistic chance of joining the EU in the foreseeable future. 2011 has been mentioned, but the country has seen its accession talks hijacked by a border dispute with EU member state Slovenia.
Ljubljana appears intent on exploiting the leverage its veto power over enlargement decisions to the full and has frozen all EU talks with Zagreb. 'Privileged Partnership'
There is little sympathy within the EU for Slovenia's tactics, and Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has been tasked with defusing the situation.
Turkey's accession process has also bogged down, with France and Germany keen to divert its ambitions from full membership to a "privileged partnership," with Cyprus sniping from the sidelines.
Macedonia has been given candidate status, but so far without a date for the launch of accession talks.
Montenegro has applied for candidate status, but Germany earlier this month vetoed an immediate EU response.
Albania is also likely to apply for an upgrade in relations with the EU soon.
Serbia lags far behind as its attempts to get on the first rung of the accession path by signing a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU have been frustrated by an EU demand that it first arrest and hand over its remaining war crimes suspects, led by Ratko Mladic.
Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo make up the end of the Balkan train, with their accession prospects remaining highly theoretical at this stage.