BRUSSELS, Mar 23 (Reuters) The European Union returned to tough debate on how far the bloc should expand, considering public fatigue with enlargement, and how to reform its overstretched institutions to cope with new members.
Meeting during an EU summit, the bloc's foreign ministers noted that the Union cannot enlarge beyond Bulgaria and Romania, which are due to join in 2007 or 2008, unless member states approve a new treaty, diplomats said yesterday.
''The Austrian presidency wanted to have a strategic informal debate on what are the limits of the EU, how to restore citizens' support for enlargement and, finally what to do with the EU constitution,'' an EU diplomat said.
Austria, which holds the EU's presidency in the first half of 2006, would like to have some of those questions answered, possibly at the bloc's summit in June, the diplomat added.
''Should we first define the borders of Europe and then enlarge or should we first have a new rule-book for the EU? We need to give answers to those questions, but the debate can be long,'' said Polish Foreign Minister Stefan Meller.
Another participant, on condition of anonymity, said it was a rambling and not very focused discussion.
France called for a debate on expansion last year after its voters, along with the Dutch, rejected the EU constitution, partly due to concern about the 2004 enlargement into ex-communist eastern Europe and deep fears about admitting mainly Muslim Turkey.
The EU has since started membership talks with Ankara and Croatia and renewed its commitment to admit Western Balkan countries as new members one day.
But flagging economic growth in Western Europe and high unemployment have fuelled fears that the ''old'' EU's social model is being undermined by low-cost competition from the new members, and even more so from possible future newcomers.
The EU's Nice Treaty, which will remain in force unless the constitution is relaunched or another treaty adopted in its place, envisages only 27 members of the bloc.
The voting system for EU ministerial councils embedded in the rejected constitution could handle any number of members, because it is based on the size of a nation's population.
EU leaders plan to end the agreed ''reflection period'' on the constitution at the bloc's summit in June, but diplomats say the debate on the charter will be restarted seriously only after presidential elections in France in May 2007.
Diplomats quoted British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw as saying the EU had to be realistic about the fact that voters had cast the constitution into limbo before it started discussing a way forward.
REUTERS CH SP0950