Twelve into sixteen won't go: British obduracy could scupper European Union enlargement, says Sarah Lambert

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'THE KEY is exhaustion. When the man facing you at the table is too tired to write his own name, you begin to deal.' The European diplomat who described such brinkmanship had not seen his own bed for 36 hours.

He is part of the team negotiating the entry of Austria, Finland, Sweden and Norway to the European Union. The timetable has been gruelling. And unless European Union foreign ministers can resolve the serious political problems arising from enlargement when they meet in Brussels today, the timetable for admitting the new members by 1 January 1995 will be blown. Enlargement, far from reviving the process of European unity, risks creating ever greater disunity.

Norway has yet to agree terms. And even assuming that it manages to do so, each of the four Euro-club candidates will have to persuade their electorates through referendums of the virtues of membership. But the foreign ministers' meeting today will be grappling with another difficulty: certain members, notably Britain, are simply not ready to accept the idea that with more members the political clout of each will inevitably be diluted.

The British government's refusal to cede power threatens to topple the whole enlargement process; an ironic prospect for John Major, who has chosen to make the creation of a wider, looser European configuration the central plank of his European policy. For reasons that have to do with domestic rather than international politics, the British have forced the lid off a debate that neither they nor anyone else really wanted to have.

At issue is Britain's insistence that it retain its ability to block proposed European legislation. Most EU legislative decisions are taken by majority vote, weighted to reflect the fact that some states are more populous than others. The 'big' states - France, Germany, Italy and the UK - command larger block votes, which give them considerable political sway, for they need only ally with one other large state and a small one to form a blocking minority.

The addition of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Austria will increase the total available votes from 76 to 90. The threshold for a blocking minority rises from 23 votes cast to 27, which will weaken the potential for the 'big' countries to block.

Britain, despite having agreed to this formula at the Lisbon EU summit in 1992, has now decided to stick out in defence of the status quo ante. With European elections looming, an unpopular Conservative Party can ill afford to leave itself open to charges from its Euro-sceptic right wing that it has ceded national sovereignty to Brussels.

Spain, too, has been unhappy about the change in voting distribution, because in a Union of 16 member states it would be possible for an alliance of Nordic and small states to block legislation affecting Spain alone, for example, subsidies for olive oil producers. But Madrid has drafted a compromise position. Britain, by contrast, has so far shown no flexibility. Its obduracy has taken everyone else by surprise. One exasperated diplomat said last week: 'Why are we being forced to have this argument now? it is not timely. The real challenge is unemployment and the economy, we cannot afford to waste time getting bogged down in institutional issues.'

Britain says the argument is about representational democracy, that because European Council votes represent real people, the proportion of EU population required to block any proposal should remain constant, irrespective of how many member countries are involved. And it argues that other member states are deliberately avoiding the politically sensitive issue of institutional reform.

But in laying down such a hard line, Britain has driven her EU colleagues from the middle ground into open opposition. The Germans, who are so woefully under-represented under the current voting system that one might have expected Bonn to champion its reform, have taken particular exception to the British stance. They are supported by the Netherlands, a traditional UK ally.

The row has rekindled old animosities between the big and the small states and highlighted the legitimate concerns of the southern states - badly hit by unemployment and preparing for a new flood of economic migrants and immigrants fleeing Islamic fundamentalism in the Maghreb - that with enlargement the focus of European policy-making will move north and east. France and Germany, still the axis about which Europe turns, are both engrossed with domestic elections. In the field of commercial and industrial policy the simmering discord between free-marketeers and protectionists threatens serious divisions. In foreign policy new alliances are challenging the old - the Sarajevo ceasefire ultimatum was the fruit of pressure that France and America brought to bear on a reluctant Britain. As one European diplomat puts it: 'The spirit of wary trust, born of broadly common interests, has gone. It is not quite a free-for- all yet but there are tensions. The Union is perhaps now at its most fragile - this is a dangerous time.'

Although Britain pushed for enlargement, Germany and France have set the cracking pace. Bonn, anxious to anchor the volatile states east of Germany, wants to speed eastern integration. Despite the applications of Poland and Hungary to join the EU, a Union of 24 member states is still a long way off, but the admission of four new members is at least taken as an encouraging sign. France, which had always argued that the ties of political obligation binding the 12 existing Union states must be tightened before new members could be admitted, softened its opposition to enlargement when asked specifically by Germany to do so.

The Government is fond of insisting 'Europe is going our way', but right now Britain is perceived as the stumbling block. Everyone acknowledges that the issue of institutional reform cannot be put off indefinitely, but to tinker too long with the engine of European development now risks leaving the Union without the necessary transport to get to its chosen destination, undermining the very unity the Maastricht treaty sought to foster.

(Photograph omitted)