Enough is enough. The agonising process of negotiating a mandate for Turkey to open membership talks with the European Union this week seems to have exhausted the enthusiasm of many EU governments for any further enlargement.

As it is, they have drawn up the toughest negotiating terms ever presented to an aspiring candidate, providing all sorts of ways to block the ultimate goal of Turkish accession. The EU ?capacity to absorb Turkey? is made an essential pre-condition. Any sign of backsliding in Ankara on ?the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law? can cause the negotiations to be abruptly suspended. Every line spells out the hesitation of the present member states to open their doors across the Bosphorus.

Croatia just managed to slip in under the wire to open its own accession talks, thanks to a last-minute report that Zagreb is finally co-operating fully in the hunt for Ante Gotovina, the country?s most notorious war criminal. Of course, The caution is understandable. ?Enlargement fatigue? is apparent across most of western Europe. It was a factor in the No votes in France and the Netherlands on the EU constitutional treaty. None of the richer nations wants to increase the EU budget to pay for the last round of enlargement, let alone the next. So the talk in Brussels today is all about the need for a debate to define Europe?s ?identity?, and fix forever the borders of the Union.

It may be understandable, but it is a bad idea. It is too late and it will not work. Enlargement of the EU is a fact of life and the prospect of membership is the most important factor that is slowly bringing stability and democracy to the most fragile and fractious frontiers of the Union ? in the western Balkans and in the western republics of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.

The plan instead is to offer the nicest possible ?neighbourhood policy? to all the aspirant members, with action plans for boosting trade and investment, a full-scale customs union, easier visa regimes and help with building new institutions to entrench democracy and the rule of law. Everything, that is, short of full membership of the EU institutions.

It sounds good on paper and will help ease an inevitable period of transition as those countries struggle to meet European standards of administration and good governance. But a neighbourhood policy will not provide the guarantees they need to attract foreign investment, build their own self-confidence, root out corruption and prevent any reversion to dictatorship, let alone new wars of ethnic cleansing.

Take Ukraine. The Orange Revolution at the turn of the year was a triumph for democracy and a tribute to the influence of an enlarged EU. It was thanks to the new member
states ? Poland and Lithuania in particular ? that Leonid Kuchma, the outgoing president, was bullied into declaring the rigged elections of his chosen successor null and void. Britain, France and Germany did not want to offend Russia?s Vladimir Putin by interfering in the result he favoured. The victory of Viktor Yushchenko was a big plus for EU foreign policy, as well as the power of the streets.

Yet already he is in dire trouble, his first government having collapsed and the economy at a standstill because of chaotic plans for mass re-privatisation of former state industries. The popularity of Mr Yushchenko?s party has slumped and the pro-Russia party could emerge again as the largest at next year?s parliamentary elections.

In neighbouring Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe, the situation is very different, but equally unstable. Alexander Lukashenko has built a ramshackle but vicious police state on Soviet foundations and is kept solvent largely thanks to Moscow?s subsidised supplies of gas. He seems to be in control, with 10 per cent of the 10m population in his security services. Yet the lesson of Ukraine is that a revolution against corrupt dictatorship could erupt at any time. If it happened in Belarus, what would the EU do?

The lack of a coherent EU policy towards Ukraine and Belarus is not just a result of enlargement fatigue. It is also hamstrung by a desire not to offend Mr Putin. Russia has never come to terms with the independence of the former Soviet republics. Overt EU interference is deeply resented. When the Russian president came to London for the EU-Russia summit this week, Belarus was not mentioned and Ukraine only in the context of neighbouring Moldova. Instead they talked happily of securing Russian energy supplies and co-operating on global warming. The Russian ?near abroad? was too difficult.

Belarus and Ukraine are neighbours of the EU, just as much as of Russia. Their stability and democracy should be of equal concern to both. But Mr Putin seems to prefer instability, while the Europeans bite their tongues. Holding out the prospect, however distant, of Ukraine and a democratic Belarus joining the EU provides vital encouragement to the embattled democrats in both countries. It also signals to
Moscow that the Union has a vital interest in what happens there. This is not cold war competition. It is about bringing peace and stability
to the region.

It would be a tragedy if the political leaders of the EU lost sight of that wider vision, as they wrestle with the temporary indigestion caused by the last round of enlargement.

quentin.peel@ft.com

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