When Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, announced the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, he stressed that the ongoing reforms would be strictly monitored and sanctions might be applied.
What have been labelled the toughest entry conditions ever in the history of EU enlargement show that current candidates not only have to work extra hard to reach accession but also, and especially, that they are facing a strong feeling of enlargement fatigue.
The term is not new, but enlargement fatigue has never been as real since the last expansion, in 2004, when 10 new countries entered the European club.
Never has the EU had so many candidates: Croatia and Turkey initiated talks in October 2005, Macedonia gained official candidate status in December 2005 and Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia have also stated their interest in joining.
On the same day the president announced the date of Romania and Bulgaria's entry, he cautioned that it would be the last one for some time. "There is a limit to our absorption capacities. It would not be wise for us to proceed with any other enlargements before we have resolved the constitutional issue."
Indeed, according to the treaties in force, the EU can accommodate a maximum of 27 members - and this number has been reached. Fifty-four members of parliament and two commissioners have taken office. Commissions for Consumer Protection and Multilingualism have been created to provide seats in the European Executive for Bulgaria and Romania's representatives Meglena Kuneva and Leonard Orban, as foreseen in the Treaty of Nice, the EU's current principal rulebook. Some analysts say that the treaties could be sufficiently bent to allow Croatia, next in line in the long accession queue, to be squeezed in - but no more after that.
Apart from the formal restrictions on taking on new members, public opinion increasingly opposes further enlargements. Fear of mass immigration and the spread of organized crime are among the reasons for this. The distribution of production quotas and the relocation of companies to poorer countries, where salaries and social benefits are lower, also come into play. In Portugal, farmers and fishermen are paid not to produce because of quotas. Many factories have closed and thousands of people been left unemployed because companies are moving production to the new eastern EU members.
Also, every enlargement has been followed by an integration period. The recent 2004 enlargement was huge and still presents big challenges. Another new enlargement soon could disrupt the EU's sensitive balance.
The costs alone can be a deterrent: for instance, the 2004 members received, in 2005, 10 billion euros more than they had paid in to the community budget. In 2006, Bulgaria and Romania were given 1.5 billion euros in pre-accession aid alone. Old member countries that traditionally received more than they paid (such as Portugal, Spain, Greece and Ireland) have had their development funds substantially cut and the richer countries must contribute to more and more subsidies.
EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn has called on people not to "make enlargement a scapegoat for our own domestic failures. It can be called enlargement blues, as well as globalisation blues or unemployment blues."
But the simple fact that the 12 new member states' workers are not allowed free movement - a basic European right - is proof that the EU is treating enlargements, even the consummated ones, very cautiously. As for future expansions, although each one has always had to be approved by governments and parliaments in every member state, steps are being taken to give the public a say in the matter. France has changed its Constitution to allow referendums on enlargements (after Croatia), and Austria has announced that it will hold a referendum on Turkey's membership, when the time comes.
But it may backfire. Just like in Bulgaria and Romania (where, even though it was believed criteria were not fully met, it was feared that an entry delay would slow reforms), enlargement fatigue may turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, discouraging candidates from making the necessary efforts. And making it hard to create a security buffer zone and spread democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
The EU has tricky times ahead. It must motivate candidate members to reform, carry out effective neighbourhood policies with bordering states and still manage to give itself a new much-needed thrust.