The dramatic failure of the recent European Council summit meeting in Brussels highlighted a new and dangerous introspection within the EU which manifests itself especially in a reluctance to embrace further enlargement. Existential fears regarding the impact of eastern enlargement played an important role in the defeat of the Constitutional Treaty referenda in France and the Netherlands; now the negative atmosphere threatens to derail the Union's expansion to South Eastern Europe.
In the first place, the accessions of Bulgaria and Romania, which are scheduled to take place on 1 January 2007, are now in peril. This is despite the fact that both countries have completed negotiations and signed their accession treaties. And although those treaties are legally binding on the EU, they include so-called safeguard clauses, which stipulate that accession can be delayed if either country fails to implement EU laws and standards adequately. It has become clear in recent days, however, that the question of Bulgarian and Romanian accession has mutated from 'are they sufficiently prepared for membership?' to 'is the EU prepared to honour its commitments to them?'
The consequences of such a postponement would be catastrophic for both the EU and the candidate states. Both Bulgaria and Romania have worked extremely hard over a long period of time to implement EU norms in everything from public administration to judicial processes, environmental regulation to food standardisation measures. Both countries have made enormous strides in privatising their economies and opening up to foreign investment. The reforms have been enacted at enormous social cost with increased unemployment and a reduction in social protection.
For the EU now to postpone their accessions would create such domestic uncertainty as to potentially threaten the reform programmes and indeed throw them into reverse. Bulgaria and Romania are both fragile post-authoritarian states seeking to consolidate fledgling democratic institutions and market reforms. Bulgaria's recent general election saw a new extreme nationalist party – Attack! – claim almost 10 per cent of the vote. In Romania, the far-right Romania Mare party of Vadim Tudor continues to make ground at the expense of the centrist parties. The continued uncertainty about EU membership can only embolden the extremists and weaken the fabric of democracy in these countries.
Similarly continued attachment to reform requires certainty from the EU as to the timetable for accession. Without it, both countries might well drift back, if not to authoritarian rule, then toward an increasingly unstable political climate, characterised by weak central government, pervasive corruption and potentially volatile inter-ethnic community relations. Romania has a significant Hungarian minority; Bulgaria includes a sizeable Turkish minority. Thus the potential for regional instability should not be underestimated.