BRUSSELS — AS the European Union this month adjusts to three new member nations, a new chief executive, and French leadership of its rotating presidency, it may be losing its cohesion.
When outgoing European Commission President Jacques Delors moved Europe toward a single market in the 1980s, he had strong executive powers as well as the solid backing of the French and German governments and a significant core of European businesses. Key decisions were made in relatively small groups.
His successor, former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jacques Santer, took office yesterday. He faces a more assertive European Parliament, three new member states (Austria, Finland, and Sweden), and a less-committed core of business and political sponsors.
French President Francois Mitterrand has warned against a loss of focus as the EU grows in size. ``I support enlarging the EU to include all of democratic Europe, but I don't want the last member to find that he has just joined something that doesn't exist any more because it was eroded from the inside,'' he told the European Parliament last week.
The expanding EU is challenging the traditional clout of original EU members, especially France and Germany. States are having to reconsider who holds more power - heads of each member nation or the popularly elected European Parliament, which gives smaller states a larger voice.
``Europe is a dangerous continent, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall,'' says outgoing Commission spokesman Bruno de Thomas. ``The issue for the EU is a choice ... between maintaining a continent that counts, that is active in the affairs of the world, and one that just represents free circulation of goods. Some member states want even less integration than we have today.''
Britain has always been one that hesitates to subordinate itself to the will of the Continent. ``I do not myself believe that it is sensible to suppose that a common European foreign policy can be established by majority voting, or with the Commission in a preeminent position,'' British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd told a meeting of the French Institute of International Relations this month.
Even so, some politicians on the island nation want to pull further from union with Europe. Last Thursday, eight rebel Conservatives in Britain's Parliament presented Prime Minister John Major with an eight-point manifesto, which called for Britain to refuse a common EU defense strategy.
EU-believers, meanwhile, insist that European member states act as one unit. Mr. Delors, in his farewell to the European Parliament, said ``The European home is open to all, provided they do not slow the march of those who want to share their destiny to be at once stronger and more fraternal.''
Russia's assault on the breakaway republic of Chechnya has tested the capacity of a larger, more democratic EU to act. Last week, out of concern over Russia's indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Chechnya, the European Commission and Parliament froze a commercial agreement between Russia and the EU.
But the French government balked at the move, arguing that such a decision should be reached by heads of state, rather than Parliament. ``We're all preoccupied by the situation in Chechnya,'' said Richard Duque, spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, last week. ``But such a move should first be debated in the Council of Ministers [composed of heads of state],'' over which France now presides.
Some observers note, however, that despite disagreements at the top, a pattern of trust is developing as Europeans work together on social problems.
``It's in the habit of cooperation that we're building Europe,'' says Stanley Crossick of the Brussels-based Belmont European Policy Centre. ``In education, health care, job training, Europeans are coordinating activities and sharing experiences. The effect is to pull together people from different nations.''