BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Most countries hoping to join the European Union face a long wait because the bloc has shifted its focus to institutional reforms and economic problems and "enlargement fatigue" has set in across the EU.
Czech Stefen Fuele, who is expected to start work as the 27-country bloc's enlargement chief next week, says the EU can grow during the five-year term and the executive European Commission says expansion is on track.
But political analysts say enlargement is likely to be held up by internal EU disagreements, bilateral disputes facing some would-be members, and the EU's decision to focus mainly on the economy and implementing reforms under its new Lisbon treaty.
"In the immediate future, the European Union will be pretty much self-obsessed," said Daniel Korski of the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank. "Many EU leaders just don't see the benefit (of enlargement)."
Countries that want to join the EU include Turkey, Iceland, Albania and all the former Yugoslav republics except Slovenia, which acceded in 2004. Iceland and Croatia hope to join in 2012.
To succeed, they must implement any economic and political reforms that are needed to meet EU standards and bring their laws into line with those of the Union.
In addition to this process, which can take many years at the best of times, would-be members face other obstacles.
Opinion polls suggest EU citizens are concerned by the cost of inviting in poorer countries from southern Europe when the bloc is still coping with the global financial crisis.
Some EU leaders also show little interest in enlargement while reforms are being implemented under the Lisbon treaty, which came into force on Dec. 1, even though the treaty is intended to streamline decision-making that has become unwieldy since the accession of 10 countries in 2004 and two in 2007.
Fuele, who will start his new job provided the European Parliament approves the new Commission on Feb. 9, encouraged prospective members by strongly defending enlargement during an approval hearing in the assembly last month.
"Enlargement has transformed my country and my life. It has restored hope and dignity to millions of people," he said.
But, underscoring caution among EU decision-makers, he also said there could be no short cuts to membership and accession was "a demanding task for which one must be totally prepared".
His comments reflect a lack of consensus among EU leaders about the pace of enlarging the bloc's borders.
The centre-right governments in Germany and France, worried by cultural differences with largely Muslim Turkey, have signalled their opposition to letting Ankara join and its progress has been slowed by disputes with EU member Cyprus and a refusal to open Turkish ports to Greek Cypriot traffic.
Macedonia's hopes of progress are undermined by a dispute over its name with Greece, and Croatia is still trying to resolve a border dispute with Slovenia.
Iceland's hopes are tied partly to a dispute with Britain and the Netherlands over debts linked the collapse of its banking system last year.
Serbia's hopes have been lifted by the EU's decision to allow visa-free travel for its citizens, an agreement which also benefits Montenegrins and Macedonians, and by the unblocking of an interim trade deal with the EU.
But Belgrade's progress also depends on it cooperating with the United Nations war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia in tracking down suspected war criminals following the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.
"It's going to take a lot of work...a lot of diplomacy, to get all of these negotiations back on track," an EU envoy said.
Accession is unlikely for years for all but Croatia and Iceland.
"Stefan Fuele actually has some low-hanging fruit," said Katinka Barysch from the Centre for European Reform think-tank.
"He starts his job by getting Croatia in fairly quickly. He's got Iceland. Fantastic. He gets two countries in. All the other countries are simply too far away from being ready."
Recent signs of progress for Serbia, and the launch of negotiations with Turkey in one new policy area in December, underline the bloc's desire to keep up the interest and hopes of countries that wish to join -- while signalling there will be no fast track to membership that allows entry standards to drop.
Concerns about standards have grown since Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007 because they have failed to end widespread corruption, despite EU pressure to do so.
Underlining the balancing act, Fuele said the accession process must appeal to countries that are already in the EU as well as to countries that hope to join.
"It is important to make sure that accession is proposed to countries that can make full benefit from it, and can bring their positive contribution to Europe," he said.