Leading Article: When the Twelve become the Sixteen

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The Independent Online
THERE was little to celebrate at John Major's meeting yesterday with Carl Bildt, the Swedish Prime Minister. With recession, currency chaos, the war in former Yugoslavia and the confusion over Maastricht to look back on, the European Community has had a miserable year. But there was at least one thing that the two conservative leaders could drink to last night: the fact that the Community has given up its high-handed attitude to the countries that want to join it. Many diplomats now believe Sweden, Finland, Austria and Norway will be inside the EC by 1996, if they wish.

When their membership was first mooted, the applicants were told that they must expect to be perpetual net contributors to the EC's coffers, because of the principle of redistributing tens of billions of pounds from the EC's richer north to its poorer south. Those with a long-held emotional attachment to neutrality were ordered to recant, and to declare their belief in a common European foreign and security policy.

Much has changed since then. The confidence engendered by the Maastricht negotiations has disappeared. Only a few enthusiasts still believe in a headlong rush towards European political union; as for the single currency, even the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, admits it may now take a year or two longer to appear than originally planned. Moreover, with the continental economies still in recession, immediate EC membership no longer seems the glittering prize it once was.

In the longer term, most Scandinavians recognise that the economic arguments for joining remain as compelling as ever. The importance of the trade they do with the Community has forced them to accept the primacy of EC rules in the forthcoming EEA free-trade area; in trying to keep their currencies at par with the German mark, they, too, have had to pay the price of high interest rates and high unemployment familiar to economies inside the ERM. Only inside a European monetary union will the applicants help to make the decisions by which they have to abide.

As summer draws into autumn, however, a subtle change is likely to take place in the tone of the accession negotiations. Public opinion in the applicant countries, never very keen on joining the Community, has further cooled. Opinion polls show more opponents than supporters in all four countries. In Sweden, the Social Democrats' leaders have become more cautious advocates of the EC cause - for fear of inflaming the rank and file at this autumn's party conference, and thus making next year's referendum harder still.

Once inside, the new applicants may well give British Conservatives a shock. John Major will undoubtedly be pleased to welcome a group of new members that share his free-trade instincts. Yet he will find them less sound on other matters. Many Scandinavians dislike the Social Chapter because it proposes too little regulation, not too much. They find Conservative arguments against a working week limited to 48 hours astounding. They want environmental controls to be stiffer, not more lax. And once their precious local accountability is assured, the new members may turn out as keen on federalism as the enthusiasts, from whom Mr Major had hoped they would protect him.