EU must 'consolidate' before further enlargement, Merkel says
The EU needs to "consolidate" before enlarging any further, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said in what is the latest blow to countries hoping to join the bloc any time soon.
Commenting on western Balkan countries' fears that their EU ambitions are slowly being pushed far into the future, Ms Merkel said: "We don't want this, but no one is well served in a Europe that can't keep up with integration and takes on too many new members too quickly."
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"Therefore, we say that we have Croatia and its accession talks in our sights. But we must also first see that, with the Lisbon treaty, we hopefully get a certain consolidation phase in terms of integration," she added in a speech on Europe to members of her conservative Christian Democrat party (CDU) in Berlin, Reuters reports.
Ms Merkel's comments come amid an already gloomy situation for EU aspirants.
Uncertainty over the EU's Lisbon treaty has diminished the willingness to see new countries let in not only in Germany, but also in other member states, notably France.
Additionally, the financial crisis has stolen the attention of leaders from EU enlargement concerns, and the western Balkans' own situation does not make matters easier.
Croatia is expected to end EU membership negotiations by the end of this year - although this timeline has come into question due to a blockage of the talks by Slovenia in a border row between the two neighbours.
Turkey's accession talks have been advancing slowly, while the third EU candidate, Macedonia, has failed to even begin such talks for more than three years because of a Greek veto in a dispute over the former Yugoslav country's name.
Montenegro filed an application to join the bloc last December, but EU member states have been reluctant ever since to take the next step by passing this application for assessment to the European Commission. Any assessment result is unlikely before some time next year.
The other western Balkan countries are even further down the line.
Serbia and Albania are expected to submit their requests to join the EU some time in the next few months, while Bosnia and Herzegovina's internal problems have slowed its reforms and EU integration process. Disagreement among EU members over Kosovo's status makes it unlikely for Pristina to progress much towards the EU in the near future.
UK making the case for enlargement
Some EU countries, however, have warned against the trend of stopping the bloc's expansion, with the UK in particular speaking strongly in favour of keeping momentum going.
"We must re-energise our relations with our neighbours because this [financial] crisis has shown very clearly how exposed we are to problems beyond our borders," British foreigh secretary David Miliband wrote in a comment for Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza on Monday.
"Whatever the temptations, we cannot afford to turn inwards," he added.
Well beyond the Balkans – where "the offer of EU membership is also critical to overcoming the nationalist politics and ethnic divisions," there are also other neighbours the 27-nation bloc should one day consider for accession.
"Beyond these [Balkan] countries, there are others – Iceland or Ukraine for instance – for which we must keep open the prospects of membership," said Mr Miliband.