Enlargement Risks Being Biggest Casualty of Vote

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Future enlargement of the European Union to include Turkey, the Balkan states and even Ukraine could become the highest-profile casualty of France's No vote to the EU constitutional treaty, according to political and diplomatic observers in several member states.

Doubts about the enlargement process emerged as a central theme fuelling opposition to the treaty in both France and the Netherlands in recent weeks. This included not only hostility to the prospect of Turkish membership, but also criticism of the social and economic effects of last year's EU enlargement from 15 to 25 members.

'No' vote supporters celebrate after France voted against the ratification of the European constitution

As a result, the EU's plans for accession talks with Croatia, Turkey, Albania and the rest of former Yugoslavia have been thrown into varying degrees of doubt.

Bulgaria and Romania, which have already signed accession treaties to join in 2007, still have strong hopes of entering, although officials admitted yesterday they were facing "the most difficult phase of the process" requiring ratification by all 25 present members.

Ukraine, which was biding its time before making a formal application to join is in an even more tenuous position, as are long-shot hopefuls such as Georgia and Moldova. During the referendum campaign, many French voters expressed fears about central European workers with low wages taking French workers' jobs and factories moving from France to eastern Europe.

Yesterday, the European Commission tried desperately to disentangle worries about enlargement and the constitution. "The ratification of the constitution and future steps in enlargement policy are two separate procedures," said a spokeswoman for José Manuel Barroso, Commission president. But officials acknowledge the prospects for the continued expansion of the Union are looking poor.

Germany's Christian Democrats, favourites to win the federal election expected in September, have already indicated they may try to block the accession of Romania and Bulgaria, widely regarded as ill-prepared for the burdens of membership. The Christian Democratic Union also opposes Turkey's eventual membership.

Croatia, which was to have begun entry talks in March, is in a limbo of its own, after the EU said it had not co-operated enough in finding Ante Gotovina, an indicted war criminal. Nevertheless, Berlin and a group of central European states champion Zagreb's cause.

Meanwhile, the countries of the western Balkans - Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania - risk becoming forgotten even though their small size could make them easier to accommodate than Turkey or Ukraine.

France's No vote creates particular problems for Poland, which is to keen to promote stability in the former Soviet republics on its border.

The Polish concern is that failure of the constitution would leave Europe too absorbed by its internal problems to use the lure of eventual membership to influence its neighbours.

Marek Belka, Poland's prime minister, said it would be difficult in the near future to conceive of any EU expansion: "That is so obvious you do not need diplomatic language to say so."

Ukraine's government played down the importance of the French vote, although Boris Tarasyuk, foreign minister, admitted it could delay further EU expansion. "The situation shouldn't be over-dramatised," he said. "The EU still exists and develops, and it hasn't become less attractive."

Source: Financial Times