An uproar is brewing between EU member states and the European Commission over enlargement policies -- particularly over letting in Balkan states.
Only a few years ago, Macedonia was at war
Some EU members are shrugging off a suggestion that membership talks should begin with Macedonia and other Balkan states. Others are downright hostile.
"Macedonia is in no way stable or ready," one EU diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper.
Regardless, the European Commission said earlier this month that EU member states should accept Macedonia as a candidate to join the European Union, despite the ex-Yugoslav republic having some administrative weaknesses.
That followed stabilization and association agreement talks between the country and the European Union in April 2001 and candidature status was later granted after the country met a series of reform requirements.
The Balkan country signed a NATO-backed agreement in August 2001 to end a bloody insurgency by ethnic Albanian rebels seeking greater social and political rights.
Macedonia's prime minister said the European Commission's decision earlier this month to recommend his country as an EU candidate was a "one-way ticket" to full membership of the 25-nation bloc.
"The issue of whether or not Macedonia is going to be a member of the EU is now closed," Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski told reporters. "We had the strategic aim of becoming a member of the EU and now we've got a one-way ticket. Macedonia and its citizens got recognition for creating a positive multicultural and democratic society."
Macedonians -- and their neighbors -- are hopeful
Describing the ex-Yugoslav state as a European success story, EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn praised the government for turning Macedonia around in just a few years in spite of the work that remains to be done.
"Four years ago, in 2001, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was at the brink of a civil war, now today in 2005 it is seriously knocking on the EU's door," he told reporters. "The country is a European and more general success story in terms of political stability and democratic development."
EU 'stretched to limits' over enlargement
That success is irrelevant to many EU states which maintain that the EU has grown too much, too fast and become unwieldy. That opposition is particularly strong in central Europe and Greece.
Rehn has conceded that the EU must explain to citizens why it continues to accept new members.
"Our enlargement agenda is very heavy indeed, and our absorption capacity is stretched to its limits," he told reporters. "We need to consolidate our enlargement agenda, in other words we need to be very cautious with any new commitments, but at the same time we need to stand by our existing commitments."
Use membership to create a stable Europe, Rehn says
The EU grew to 25 member states in May 2004 when it brought on board 10 mainly former communist states in a "big bang" expansion. Romania and Bulgaria, two other former eastern-bloc countries, are due to join in 2007, and Turkey and Croatia began membership talks last month.
Turkey, a vast, relatively poor and mainly Muslim state, has been given no guarantees that it will be admitted, and its accession talks are expected to last at least a decade. Macedonia has been given no date for the beginning of accession talks.
After Macedonia, the EU has also promised to consider membership for Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia-Montenegro.
Problem is administrative, Rehn says
Rehn said the enlargement problem was as much administrative as financial.
"The budgetary implications of any future enlargement will have to be taken very seriously into account as well as the institutional consequences," he said.
The enlargement process has also been clouded by referendums earlier this year in France and the Netherlands in which voters roundly rejected the Union's planned constitution.
Among their reasons for voting "no," some voters cited the EU's apparent willingness to continue to expand without end and bring in Turkey, which would push the bloc's borders to the Middle East.
But Rehn added that it was still vital to offer the incentive of membership to unstable countries, particularly the Balkan states, which were wracked by conflict in the 1990s.
"We have to see the accession process of the European Union as a tool for enhancing the stability of that region," he said, adding that it was a more question of "exporting stability to the western Balkans than importing instability."
He wants to set a date for starting talks with Macedonia during the EU summit in December.