EC membership drama for couch potatoes

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The Independent Online
FORGET Red Hot Dutch. Today, those of you with CNN can watch the EC expand before your very eyes.

In the spirit of openness and transparency that is supposed to de-mystify the inner workings of the European Community and comfort its 340 million citizens, the formal opening of membership negotiations between Finland, Austria, Sweden and the EC's 12 existing members will be beamed live to your sitting-room television at midday.

The ceremony marks the first time the Community has opened its doors to newcomers since Spain and Portugal joined in 1986. Be thankful that only the opening session is being televised: Iberian membership took nearly 10 years to negotiate.

That the process is now under way is a victory for those EC members such as Britain that argued big was beautiful against those such as France, which believed the Community's own institutions should be put on a more secure footing and the cause of European unity further advanced before admitting new members.

The Maastricht treaty, the failure of Denmark to ratify and the obvious misgivings of the French and British electorates changed the political landscape. Germany, once France's ally in the widening versus deepening argument, suddenly saw that enlargement offered the Community a way forward at a time when political and economic difficulties had seemed to tarnish the European ideal. The inclusion of other Scandinavian states would give additional bite to the argument that Denmark risks total isolation if it fails to ratify Maastricht a second time.

Months earlier, Jacques Delors, the EC President, had suggested creating a halfway house for EC aspirants. The European Free Trade Association - Finland, Austria, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein - would get the economic benefits of membership without the political commitments. But with Germany converted to the wisdom of early enlargement, the so-called European Economic Area (EEA) - Mr Delors' halfway house - became instead a stepping-stone to full membership for Finland, Austria and Sweden, which had already tabled applications.

The three, which may be joined by Norway, have set their sights on entry by 1 January 1995 and are pledged to be bound by the Maastricht treaty in its entirety: it has been made clear there can be no opt- outs. The timetable may be achievable, because much of the work has already been covered in the EEA negotiations.

But, as with so much else in the Community, the EEA treaty hit an unexpected hitch at the beginning of December, when Switzerland refused to ratify. Iceland is now having second thoughts.

This all serves to illustrate that, with 29 different subject areas, ranging from statistics through fisheries to security policy, the membership discussions will not necessarily be easy. Negotiators are undecided whether to start with the easy topics - those already agreed under the EEA - or tackle issues such as foreign policy.

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