THE dark clouds of pessimism that have hung over the European Community for months are starting to part. There are signs that Denmark will vote yes in the Maastricht referendum in three weeks, to be followed by ratification in Britain and the probable defeat of a constitutional challenge in the German courts.
But even with the Maastricht treaty up and running big problems loom for the EC, according to those who say that democracy and civil rights will only be protected in a decentralised European union and that the greatest threat to parliamentary democracy would come from the emergence of a Brussels-centred 'super-state'.
Independent experts drawn from think-tanks across the Community and co-ordinated by the European Policy Forum (EPF) in London are trying to set an agenda for the institutional changes that must occur sooner or later in the Community and are due to be addressed by a high-level inter-governmental conference in 1996.
The group, which is to launch its final proposals later this year, wants to ensure that the huge credibility gap which emerged between governments and public opinion over the past 12 months is never repeated. Their discussions are all the more urgent because of widespread fears that the Council of Ministers will be paralysed when the EC is enlarged from 12 to 16 and then up to 25 member states by the end of the century.
One proposal is to set up a second parliamentary chamber in Europe - comprising MPs from national parliaments - that would have veto power over Commission initiatives. Another idea is to establish a permanent Council chamber in Brussels to be staffed by ministers for Europe, drawn from the member states and adding a strategic function to the work now being done by ambassadors.
The next EC enlargement will include Austria, Sweden, Norway and Finland, to be followed by associated countries in eastern Europe. It is generally agreed that this will radically alter the way business is done in Brussels - probably for the worse.
The gloomiest scenario sketched out in official circles and by the EPF and others is for gridlock in the Council of Ministers, where enlargement will make voting procedures so complex that the Community can only be headed for paralysis. There are also fears that despite the safeguards built into the Maastricht treaty, the Commission will try to fill the void by evolving into a government of Europe, an ambition it has long held.
Even ardent believers in the EC are fearful that undemocratic and centralising forces could be unleashed by the combination of enlargement and a defective Maastricht treaty, which neither assured those who wanted a loose confederation nor satisfied the federalists who want to build a European super-state from Brussels.
Unanimous votes - needed for taxation, energy and other issues - may be impossible to attain and co-operation on foreign and security policy could become equally entangled. Meanwhile, a drifting Council of Ministers would play into the hands of the Commission, which is already well placed to fill the power vacuum since it alone has the right to draw up Community laws.
The weighted majority voting system will no longer protect the interests of larger states such as Britain. At the moment, if larger countries do not like the look of a Commission initiative they need only enlist the help of three smaller countries to block it. Smaller countries, such as Belgium and Ireland, will gain much greater leverage.
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