EU enlargement chief vows to press ahead, for 'stability'BERLIN Whoever believes that last year's resounding no to the European constitution might also delay or halt the European Union's much disputed advance into the Balkans has not listened to the European Commission - or more precisely to the 43-year-old Finn in charge of shepherding these states into Europe.
In the view of historians and experts in this southern part of Europe, the Balkans region has for centuries been the much poorer and neglected cousin of its European relatives to the north and west. After the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the rich Western countries vowed to right this wrong and bring Romania, Bulgaria, and the countries of former Yugoslavia into the European club.
Olli Rehn, the EU commissioner in charge of enlargement, is still of that view because he believes that the EU is good at exporting what the Balkans has lacked for much of the past 150 years, namely stability.
"It is better to export stability instead of importing instability," Rehn said in a recent interview in Brussels.
"We have to see that enlargement has been a tool that has allowed us to respond to very different chances, such as the end of dictatorship in Spain and Portugal, the death of communism," he said, adding that a larger Europe was helping the bloc deal with challenges like economic globalization.
Rehn's quiet manner veils a steely determination to see through the next ambitious enlargement of the 25-member bloc. Although the European Commission has vowed to heed popular sentiment on the EU's future, especially since the French and Dutch no votes last spring, he made it clear that the EU leadership in Brussels remained firmly on the enlargement train.
"We will live up to our commitments," he said.
In the immediate future, those commitments are focused on the Balkans.
So far, the only Balkan country in the EU is Slovenia, the richest former Yugoslav state, which joined in May 2004.
Romania and Bulgaria are due to join next, with a planned entry date of January 2007 - although there has been talk of postponing this by a year to give the two former Warsaw Pact countries more time to get ready. Then, if all goes according to plan, Croatia would follow a few years later, and - although Rehn acknowledges that it will be long haul to get them ready - Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and even Albania would join. Last on the list would be Turkey.
This agenda is stirring unease among Europeans, according to opinion surveys. A recent poll by the EU's Eurobarometer indicates that only 29 percent of Austrians support further enlargement, even though Austria, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, is making a big push to have Romania and Bulgaria join on schedule next year. Public support stands at just 31 percent in France and Luxembourg, and only 36 percent in once pro-enlargement Germany.
German, French, and Austrian leaders have openly opposed Turkish membership and have instead proposed a special partnership that would integrate Turkey economically but deny it voting rights that are due to full members.
The EU, Rehn said, must "avoid overstretching our capacity, and instead consolidate our enlargement agenda." But this, he stressed, does not mean stopping at the "big bang" enlargement of May 2004, when the EU admitted 10 countries, including eight from formerly communist Eastern Europe.
"It means focusing on southeast Europe, now and in the foreseeable future," Rehn said. "We first have Romania and Bulgaria, second the Western Balkans," or former Yugoslavia, he said, "and third Turkey."
"This is already a challenging agenda for our accession process," said.
The EU last year agreed to start admission negotiations with Turkey, the country that has generated by far the most heated debate about enlargement. Opposition to Turkish membership has surged over the last year in tandem with fears among citizens of the older EU states that the recent arrivals from Eastern Europe would encroach on their jobs.
Despite the commission's determination to forge ahead with the enlargement plans, Rehn indicated a willingness to compromise on timing.
"We do not hesitate to recommend postponement if one or two of the countries are clearly unprepared for accession," he said in remarks pointing at Romania and Bulgaria.
If enlargement remains on its current schedule, those two countries have only 11 months to deal with pervasive corruption, organized crime, human trafficking, and judicial reform.
Bulgaria's foreign minister, Ivaylo Kalfin, was told in Brussels on Tuesday that the authorities in Sofia had to do more to tackle these problems if they wanted a green light for January admission from EU leaders when they meet next June.
So far, EU member states have never stopped the enlargement process or delayed admission of countries due to join, even if they were not entirely ready. But the climate has changed, with public opinion in several countries blaming the 2004 enlargement for the bloc's current economic malaise.
Rehn rebutts those arguments.
"We certainly have some enlargement blues - or call them unemployment blues, or globalization blues," he said. "But enlargement should not be made a scapegoat for Europe's domestic policy failures."
If anything, he said, the admission of the East Europeans has sparked a lively debate about Europe's relations with Ukraine and Russia, as well as challenging old economic structures wedded to labor inflexibility.
"The new member states, thanks to their economic and democratic transition, are much more open to facing the challenges of globalization and other current transformations," he said.
Rehn acknowledges, however, that each enlargement also brings more pressure on Brussels to open the door further. Each enlargement means new members want their neighbors to join as well. Poland and Lithuania, which supported Ukraine's Orange Revolution of December 2004, have already pressed the EU into offering Ukraine the prospect of membership. And when Romania joins, it is expected to start lobbying for Moldova.
"Once Bulgaria and Romania join the EU, I am sure our competences and interest in the Black Sea will be enhanced," Rehn said. "I don't think this is negative. It is positive because the European Union reinforces stability and democracy inside its own borders, and that reflects stability and democracy to its neighbors."