IS membership in the European Union worth the loss of Alpine tranquility, or heavy subsidies to Arctic farmers, or protection of Nordic fishermen?
That, in a nutshell, is the question that Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Austria have been asking themselves as they negotiate for membership in the 12-country European Union.
As the difficult and drawn-out negotiations were set to come right down to a midnight deadline yesterday, with no assurances of success, the applicant countries' tough bargaining appeared to bewilder many on the EU side. After all, wasn't the European Union supposed to be the magnet, the principal political and economic pole that would attract the rest of Europe at all costs?
``We're talking about membership in a union, the European Union, with all the privileges and responsibilities that entails, but you'd think from the way these talks are going that it's us requesting entry into Scandinavia,'' says one EU official, echoing a frequent refrain in Brussels, the EU headquarters.
The EU's inability to resist the deepest recession of the postwar era and its failure to pull much weight in negotiating a Bosnian peace settlement have tarnished its image as a fortress of economic power and a budding political force, observers note. That, coupled with the fact that the EU's current members want the four wealthy candidates admitted into the Union, has emboldened the applicant countries to push for concessions that they might not have dreamed of if the beleaguered EU were in better straits.
EU officials continued to insist yesterday that the midnight negotiating deadline had very little give for any candidate hoping to be in the Union by Jan. 1, 1995 - primarily because the European Parliament must review each final membership agreement before Parliament elections this May if the four are to have time to hold referendums this year.
Most observers in Brussels concluded after marathon negotiating over the weekend that Sweden, Finland, and possibly Austria would meet the deadline, while Norway - which already said ``no'' once to membership in 1972 - was the farthest away from an accord.
Norway is sticking adamantly to its demand - summarized in Brussels as ``Not one more cod for Europe'' - that its fishing waters remain closed to Ireland, Portugal, and Spain, as under an existing fishing agreement. At the same time, however, the Norwegian government is demanding full access to the European Single Market for its fish products - a demand opposed by France, where recent riots by Breton coast fishermen have toughened the government's stance.
Austria, which at one point was considered a shoo-in for membership because of its close relations with Germany and economic dependence on the EU, has also stiffened its negotiating - most recently over truck access to its Alpine highways.
Austria, taking a cue from the Swiss vote last month to ban foreign trucks from its Alpine passes, wants to stick to a truck-limitation agreement it has with the EU that runs through 2004. But EU officials point out that the existing agreement would violate the Single Market, guaranteeing the free movement of goods, and say it must be phased out sooner.
And all four countries want to preserve the rich subsidies they pay their uncompetitive farmers - such as those above the Arctic circle in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and in high Alpine valleys in Austria. The EU position is: ``OK, as long as you pay for it'' -
but the four want EU help.
Yet if the four applicants seem resolute in their campaign to enter the EU without giving an inch, EU members are demonstrating no similar unity.
Germany is seen as ready to give in to almost any demand - except those that would require a higher EU budget - largely because Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who faces tough elections later this year, is basing much of his campaign on the theme of a prosperous, peaceful Europe through the Union's expansion.
Chancellor Kohl today receives Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Boross, whose country is expected to apply for EU membership as early as this summer.
Britain and Denmark support the Nordic countries' membership in part as a means of solidifying the Union as a force for free-market and free-trade thinking in Europe and the world. Spain sees things differently: It wants the wealthy applicants to help Europe's ``poor'' south to catch up economically, but at the same time it fears seeing the south's power diluted by four new northern members.
``Spain is for the Union's expansion, but it is also very pro-Union and wants to avoid seeing a block of small countries standing in the way of the Union's progress,'' says a Spanish official in Brussels. For this reason, Spain is insisting the Union preserve its weighted-majority voting system, which allows two large countries and one smaller one to block a ``tyranny'' of small members.
The intransigence of the applicant countries may be an additional wound to the EU's self confidence, but some observers say that despite the Union's current difficulties, its attraction as an economic and even political force remain basically intact.
``These negotiations may be a blow to the Union's self-esteem, but the fact that these countries applied for membership - and Norway for a second time - indicates the attraction is still there,'' says Phillipe Moreau-Defarges, a European specialist at the French Institute for International Studies here. ``Despite everything, the [Union] will continue to be Europe's economic force, making it sensible [for these countries] to be on the inside.''