European Union leaders last night moved to put the brakes on future expansion of the bloc as they clashed over rules aimed to help streamline decision-making in an enlarged Europe.
At an EU summit in Brussels, the 25 heads of government were due to endorse a partial freeze on EU membership talks for Turkey, and to scrap a system under which countries due to join are given a starting date. Both measures were calculated to send a message to voters that only the best-prepared of new nations will, in future, be allowed to join the club.
Before arriving at the summit the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, underlined the new, tougher, stance, arguing that "the prospect of joining is no guarantee for later membership" and adding: "The criteria must be fulfilled."
The European Commission has insisted that the EU needs to revise its rulebook before any new nations are admitted. But the first attempt to make decision-making easier was destined to come to grief as Britain dug in against plans to axe the national veto on justice and home affairs issues.
Finland, which holds the EU presidency, pushed a plan to shift decision-making in justice and interior matters to majority voting. This can be done without changing the EU treaty but only if all nations agree.
The UK, backed by Germany, France and the Netherlands, called on the Finns to abandon their plans. The Prime Minister's spokesman said: "We are not going to support anything in which we do not believe: we are not going down the road of anything that is against our national interest."
Meanwhile, in Brussels for a meeting of centre-right politicians, the French conservative presidential frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy said that his opposition to Turkey's bid to join the European Union was "gaining ground" among EU leaders.
He added that Ms Merkel, the European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, and the Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker "are all in agreement that we need a Europe with borders". There were hints from the meeting that M Sarkozy might veto Turkey's accession and press instead for it to have a "privileged partnership" with the EU. Though that would be highly controversial within the EU there was more consensus over moves to make the process of joining the EU more rigorous.
Draft conclusions from the summit, which ends today, said acceding countries must be "ready and able to fully assume obligations of Union membership" and be "able to function effectively". They added that the union "will refrain from setting any target dates for accession until the negotiations are close to completion".
The statement reflects a widespread belief that the decision to give Romania and Bulgaria an accession date of January 2007 was an EU own goal. Despite corruption and poor administrative and judicial standards, the two countries have the go-ahead to join on schedule.
Britain suspects that some other EU countries, notably France, who did not want the EU to take in 10 new member states in 2004, are stalling expansion. "People who didn't really want enlargement were outmanoeuvred then. They are trying to stop that happening again," said a British source.
But a host of countries believe that, to keep enlargement on track, the UK must agree to more institutional reform. Britain is not keen to revive key aspects of the European constitution which was rejected by voters in France and the Netherlands last year. However Germany, which takes over the EU presidency in January, will start the process towards the end of its six-month stint.
Tony Blair's spokesman made clear Britain did not want to see any new hurdles on enlargement. He said: "We do believe the candidates for membership should meet the criteria set down. We do not believe that any new criteria should be imposed on them." Britain is keen to keep Turkey's membership talks on track, fearing a collapse would send a terrible signal to the Islamic world and scupper Mr Blair's hopes of creating an "arc of moderation" among Muslim nations.
Turkey: After 40 years of waiting, Turkey began EU negotiations in October.
Croatia: Missed out on the chance to join in 2007 because it failed to hand war criminals to the UN tribunal, but has complied with court in The Hague by arresting ex-general Ante Gotovina.
Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM): Given candidate status for membership as a reward for the policies of the multi-ethnic government.
Serbia: Negotiations on closer ties with the EU have been suspended because of Belgrade's failure to round up indicted war criminals.
Bosnia-Herzegovina: Negotiations opened last year but the country, with its complex, multi-ethnic structures, is a long way from concluding them.
Albania: The most recent Balkan country to open talks, Albania is catching up but democracy, rule of law and corruption issues are a worry.Reuse content