For European Union leaders who begin a make-or-break summit on the Cote d'Azur today, the chief issue is straightforward but devilishly difficult: how to remodel a house with 15 occupants so it can accommodate 30 or more.
Success is imperative if the world's richest trade bloc is to be able to admit new countries by the deadline it has set for itself. A dozen nations, most of them formerly communist lands in Eastern Europe, are already negotiating entry, and new admissions are supposed to begin as early as Jan. 1, 2003.
Results of the gathering in Nice will determine whether the EU can forge ahead with its expansion eastward, as well as southward toward Malta and Cyprus, a process that would make it even more of an economic and political force to be reckoned with by the United States.
For Americans, whose deadlocked presidential election has provided a refresher course in the workings of their own Constitution, many of the topics to be debated by the Europeans might seem familiar. Chief among them: how to reconcile the interests of countries that range from mighty Germany to the ministate of Luxembourg in a way that respects the wishes of the majority but still protects the smallest.
Among the solutions of America's Founding Fathers were a two-house Congress and the Electoral College that is now so much in the news. For French President Jacques Chirac, chairman of the Nice meeting, success here hinges on reaching a compromise to reform the voting rules that govern how the European Union makes decisions.
Now at 15 members, the EU has struggled for years to arrive at common policy on even such minor issues as defining what constitutes chocolate. Increase the number of member states, and the process becomes yet more problematic. In some areas, countries retain the right of veto. To block action, a single objection suffices, whether it comes from one of the "Big Four"--Britain, France, Germany or Italy--or smaller countries such as Denmark or Belgium.
Members Want to Hold On to Veto Power
EU members agree that more questions should be settled by majority rule. But they don't agree on what those questions should be, or on how the majority should be calculated. Britain wants to maintain its veto on tax policy, Germany on immigration, Spain on economic aid programs for which it is the chief beneficiary, and France on foreign trade.
European leaders tried, but failed, to reach a settlement on the issue in Amsterdam in 1997. Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, said last week that the differences remain so severe that chances for a breakdown in Nice were "half and half."
An upbeat Chirac has predicted an accord. However, the French are girding for drawn-out negotiations. The summit, originally expected to end Friday, may drag on through Sunday and, according to a report in one Paris newspaper, possibly until dawn Monday.
Other important issues to be debated include allowing those countries that want to proceed faster on the path of European integration to do so, without allowing less enthusiastic members such as Britain and Denmark to brake the process, and a limit on the number of members of the European Commission.
Each EU state has one member on the 20-member executive body that Prodi heads. The larger countries have two. With an increase in the ranks of the European Union, the commission could balloon to an unworkable size.
But the smaller countries seem intent on retaining their commissioners, who allow them to keep close watch on the inner workings of the EU. Without such representation in Brussels, they fear, the organization would be hijacked by the Big Four. The last time European leaders got together, in Biarritz, France, on Oct. 13-14, the issue sparked a furious quarrel at the dinner table.
In many European capitals, politicians and the press have been scathing about the job the French have done over the last six months as holders of the EU's revolving presidency. Chirac, a center-right politician, is in an increasingly tense power-sharing arrangement with his chief rival, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, and has been implicated in a mounting political scandal. For one pro-European British daily, the Independent, the French have patently failed to provide leadership.
"On all subjects, the French have only defended their national interests," Karel van Miert of Belgium, a former member of the European Commission, was quoted by the French newspaper Le Monde as saying. "Before, they at least tried to find a balance between the interests of the community and national interests."
Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister, has rejected such criticism, saying that people throughout Europe are nervous because the stakes are so high.
Franco-German Ties Appear Frayed
But on the eve of the summit, even the Franco-German relationship, the historic core of more than half a century of efforts for greater European cooperation, was looking frayed. The two countries have had an equal say in the EU, although the population of post-reunification Germany exceeds that of its western neighbor by more than 20 million people. In those areas where unanimity is not currently required, the Germans wanted to increase their voting rights, but the French flatly refused. The contentious issue could resurface at Nice.
At the summit, leaders will tackle a host of other issues, including toughening maritime safety laws, a food safety agency for Europe and deciding what formal ties should exist between a planned European Union peacekeeping force and the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization.