The FINANCIAL -- After Hungary's Viktor Orban, Romania's Victor Ponta is causing fresh
pain to the EU, struggling to respond to signs of flawed democracy in
ex-communist states welcomed, perhaps too quickly, into the European
With Romania in political crisis, "it looks as if history is repeating itself" following last year's controversial rewrite of Hungary's constitution, said Corina Stratulat of the European Policy Centre think tank in Brussels.
Though Ponta's impeachment drive against President Traian Basescu carries none of the worrying nationalist overtones of events in Hungary, "these political dynamics within and across the Union should set alarm bells ringing for the EU," she said.
As EUbusiness reported, Hungary joined the European Union as part of the bloc's 2004 "big bang" expansion from 15 members. Bulgaria and Romania brought the EU to the current 27 in 2007.
Two years later, in 2009, Poland and Sweden moved to further widen the Union, launching an Eastern Partnership destined to support reform in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine , "with a view to accelerating their political association and economic integration" with the EU.
While Croatia is poised to become the 28th EU state next year, Bulgaria too is currently bogged down in a row over transparency in the appointment of judges.
Continued rights abuse, corruption and anti-democratic practices in ex-Soviet states -- as well as the euro crisis -- have cooled EU hopes of bonding with nations on its eastern flank.
"Enlargement went too fast," Stratulat told AFP. "The EU has learnt lessons from the past, including from Greece. It is more attentive now, it is refining its strategy."
The enlargement process was insufficiently rigorous, and joining now would be far more complicated, said political scientist Richard Whitman of London's Chatham House.
"Croatia has had to jump through far more hoops than Romania or Bulgaria," he told AFP.
"There will be consequences now for Western Balkans states. Even if they embark on the path of accession it will take a lot longer and will be far more difficult."
As enlargement fatigue takes hold across the EU, Brussels has bolstered efforts to ensure members uphold basic European values.
The EU executive has been monitoring judicial reform and corruption in Bulgaria and Romania via a so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM).
A report next week is expected to call for the monitoring to continue given current events, a move that will delay their bid to join the Schengen travel-free area comprising 22 of the 27 EU states.
But aside from moves such as this there is very little the EU can do to keep members in line with political values.
"There are no levers to pull," said Whitman. "The system was not built to sanction difficult members. The response is more often just to ride it out."
When Hungary's Orban moved to stem media freedoms and stack members of his rightwing Fidesz party in key institutions, the EU threatened infringement proceedings from the European Court of Justice.
To to some extent that won concessions, said Whitman: notably regarding Hungary's central bank.
But the bloc's toughest weapon, Article 7 in the Lisbon Treaty that suspends voting rights in case of "serious violation", has never been used, neither for new states nor for older members, he added.
It was not even used when Italy's Silvio Berlusconi undermined media freedoms, Whitman said.
"There's a dichotomy between what the EU preaches abroad and what it is able to enforce internally," remarked Steven Blockmans of the Centre for European Policy Studies.
The threshold for Article 7 is very high and requires a unanimous vote, but "you can't always count on leaders of member states to act in an unfriendly way vis a vis colleagues."
And as a senior EU diplomat put it: "These problems don't arise merely with the newer members of the bloc."