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EU welcomes Romania, Bulgaria, slows bid of Turkey

Romania and Bulgaria clinched membership in the European Union, as the EU set limits on further enlargement by putting the brakes on entry talks with Turkey.

EU leaders gave the go-ahead for Romania and Bulgaria to join on January 1, bringing the bloc to 27 countries with a population of 485 million. The EU also froze part of Turkey's negotiations amid mounting public unease over further expansion. „It's not a question of harder measures,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters today before the final session of a summit in Brussels. The EU's message is that would-be members „must fulfill the criteria.” Two years after the EU expanded into eastern Europe, the public mood in Europe is swinging against further enlargement, with top contenders in next year's French presidential election promising to keep Turkey out. „If we want to be serious about enlargement, we have to tell the candidate countries that all the criteria have to be respected,” European Commission President Jose Barroso told a press conference late yesterday. Bringing in Turkey - a Muslim country of 72 million with living standards a quarter of the EU average - would be a „good thing” in the eyes of only 21% of Europeans, the German Marshall Fund said in a June survey. EU leaders ratified a December 11 decision by foreign ministers to suspend talks in eight of 35 policy areas to penalize Turkey for shutting its seaports and airports to traffic from the Greek-speaking republic of Cyprus, an EU member since 2004. Recognition of Cyprus „is not even a precondition. It's an absolute principle,” French presidential candidate and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters in Brussels. Turkey has bucked EU pressure to ease its trade curbs on the southern, Greek Cypriot republic as long as the EU won't fulfill a pledge to trade with the Turkish-occupied north of the island. „We will continue our negotiations on Turkish membership in a limited way,” Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, the summit's chairman, told the press conference. EU leaders captured the anti-expansion sentiment by demanding „strict conditionality” in all future entry talks and vowing to „take into account the capacity of the union to absorb new members,” according a draft of a statement to be issued later today.

Croatia is bidding to become the second ex-Yugoslav republic to join, though one roadblock is the EU's failure to pass a constitution to make way for new arrivals. EU leaders will chart the way forward on the constitution - vetoed last year by voters in France and the Netherlands - next June. The rest of the former Yugoslavia - Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina - and Albania are at earlier stages in the EU process. „Deepening reform” should come before the bloc takes in more members, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker said. Hurdles inside the EU haven't lessened the attraction of membership to countries on the outside. Romania stands to garner EU subsidies totaling €32 billion ($42 billion) and Bulgaria €11 billion through 2013. „Bulgaria went a long way to join the EU,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev said in an interview at the summit. „I am confident it was worth it.” The Bulgarian economy swelled 5.5% in 2005 to about $24 billion - its eighth consecutive year of growth – and Romania's economy grew 4.1% to about $100 billion, its sixth straight year of expansion. Both countries may not get the full benefits of membership right away. The EU is considering limiting some financial aid and market access because the judicial systems and health standards in Romania and Bulgaria aren't up to EU levels. Russia, in turn, is threatening to ban meat imports from the EU once the two former Soviet satellites join. Russia is already blockading meat and vegetables from Poland. (Bloomberg)