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23rd Jul 2018

Blow to Kiev as Brussels closes door to further enlargement

  • Commissioner Rehn -"The EU's absorption capacity is stretched to its limits" (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission has in a new strategy paper responded to wary public opinion about enlargement by stating the EU should be "cautious" about further expansion - with serious possible consequences for states like Ukraine.

Enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn on Wednesday (9 November) said while presenting Brussels' 2005 enlargement strategy paper: "We need to consolidate our enlargement agenda but be cautious with new commitments."

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The report defines the current agenda as "the Balkans and Turkey", clearly leaving out other countries knocking on the EU door like Ukraine.

A high-ranked commission official said he "did not object" to the analysis that the commission strategy paper represents bad news for Kiev's EU aspirations.

The blow to the Ukrainians comes after commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said last month after a meeting with Kiev's new prime minister Yuri Yekhanurov: "Our door remains open. The future of Ukraine is in Europe".

But commissioner Rehn said today that the EU should "avoid overstretch," adding that the current enlargement agenda is already very heavy.

Brussels recently got a clear signal of concern over further enlargement prospects from general public scepticism on expansion, with the unnamed EU official saying "We have to listen to citizens' concerns."

Absorption capacity and public opinion

Mr Rehn highlighted that the term "absorption capacity" now figures more than ever in reports on the various candidate states and EU hopefuls.

"Absorption capacity" relates to the EU's own capacity to welcome new member states and is defined in commission documents in terms of, for example, EU financial costs and institutional reforms.

But recently, following public scepticism with enlargement expressed in states like France and Austria, the term has also been used by politicians in connection with public opinion.

Although officials deny a connection between absorption capacity and public opinion, a statement by commissioner Rehn on Wednesday was less clear:

"All European citizens benefit from having neighbours that are stable democracies and prosperous market economies. The EU cannot abandon its responsibilities. But the pace of enlargement also has to take into consideration the EU’s absorption capacity."

"The EU's absorption capacity is stretched to its limits," he added.

Austria, which faces some of the most sceptical public feelings on enlargement, claimed victory on 3 October after it introduced a strengthened "absorption capacity" clause in the EU negotiating framework with Turkey.

Nice treaty

Commissioner Rehn today urged member states to use their "reflection period" following the French and Dutch no votes to the EU constitution to tackle one specific problem that stands in the way of enlargement after the planned accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007.

The proposed EU constitution, voted down by the French and Dutch, had provided for institutional arrangements for integrating Turkey and Balkan states.

But the Nice treaty currently in force only covers 27 member states - the 25 plus Romania and Bulgaria.

"I hope member states can soon agree on what the accession of a 28th member state would mean in terms of the composition of the commission and voting rights in the council," Mr Rehn urged.

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