Romania, Bulgaria Last in the EU's Door?

Days before talks on the constitution stalemate, the chief commissioner for the union says the issue must be settled before Croatia can be admitted

Croatia can only enter the EU when the union has a new treaty, European Commission president Barroso has said, refocusing Brussels' agenda on the "increasingly pressing" constitutional deadlock.

One day before the release of a commission report which is set to recommend Romania and Bulgaria join the bloc on 1 January, the commission chief told journalists on Monday (25 September) that Bucharest and Sofia will be the last states to be let in before the union has sorted out its institutional mess.

"It would be unwise to bring in other member states, apart from Romania and Bulgaria, before we sorted out the whole institutional issue."

"We've got to a point in time where this issue has become increasingly pressing," he added.

The remarks confirm earlier hints given by commission officials that Croatia's hopes of joining in 2009 and taking part in that year's European Parliament elections are likely to be dashed.

EU member states are aiming at consensus on a new treaty before the end of 2008 - but ratification of any fresh text could take more than a year and could again fail, after French and Dutch voters rejected the EU constitution in referendums last year.

Commission officials were quick to explain Mr Barroso's words "not as a negative signal towards Croatia, but as a positive signal for a new constitutional treaty."

The EU's current Nice Treaty obliges member states to change the composition of the commission after the bloc has let in its 27th member - sparking the need for reform in any case before Croatia can join.

But Mr Barroso made clear that small treaty changes would not be enough, explaining that "that is the time to take a decision on the constitutional treaty."

AMATO GROUP. The commission chief's description of the constitutional issue as "pressing" also appeared to point to a shift in the commission's own strategy towards the EU's institutional conundrum, which it has long played down by stressing policy results can be achieved under the current treaties.

Two commissioners, communication chief Margot Wallstrom and regional policy commissioner Danuta Hubner, will on Friday (29 September) take part in a meeting of the so-called "Amato group," consisting of high-profile EU politicians aiming at ending the stale mate caused by the French and Dutch "no" votes.

Three former prime ministers - Italy's Giuliano Amato, Belgium's Jean-Luc Dehaene and the Netherlands' Wim Kok - will be present at the meeting, as well as the current and former German interior ministers Wolfgang Schauble and Otto Schily, and two former French ministers, Michel Barnier and Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Chris Patten, former commissioner and UK Conservative politician, will also join the Rome meeting.

Commission officials said Ms Wallstrom and Ms Hubner will participate in the Amato Group talks "in their personal capacity" with Brussels not taking a position on the content of any further treaty.

VILLEPIN VS. SARKOZY. Meanwhile, after meeting Mr Barroso on Monday, French prime minister Dominique de Villepin distanced himself from his political rival and French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy who in a recent Brussels speech pleaded for a "mini treaty" including only limited elements of the EU constitution.

"I've seen that a number of large countries had some questions if not misgiving about the proposal of this kind," he said apparently referring to German chancellor Angela Merkel who criticised the idea on Friday.

"I am against a skimming off [of the treaty]," Ms Merkel said according to Reuters talking about the upcoming German EU presidency. "This is not about retaining the agreed aspects and leaving the rest to later presidencies."

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