A RECENT cartoon in the Paris daily Liberation shows four brides - representing the four countries that could become members of the 12-nation European Union (EU) by January 1995 - approaching the altar of their imminent marriage and demanding, ``What's in this for me?''
Though it paints the situation rather inelegantly, the cartoon comes down to the essential question that voters in Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Norway will be asking themselves as they approach referendums on membership later this year. So far, they aren't convinced enough to give a resounding ``I do.''
The Union founders
With the EU, formerly called the European Community, suffering from a particularly poor image because of disappointment over its weak economic performance and its failure to stop the war in ex-Yugoslavia, lofty considerations of the EU as Europe's dominant economic and political organization will play second fiddle to pragmatic judgments about membership's local impact.
People in Scandinavia ``can get excited imagining some kind of Nordic alliance, but there's not much dreaming about [the EU],'' says Rutger Lindahl, director of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm. ``What dominates are questions like whether our labor market would be better off by Sweden joining, or if we'd only import their higher unemployment.''
Actually, the Scandinavians and Austrians could still find this year's referendums put off if the EU remains unable to settle an internal battle over how it makes its decisions.
Norway succeeded Tuesday in resolving the question of access by EU members to its fishing waters, allowing it to conclude membership negotiations. But EU ministers failed once again to solve the question of how many votes it will take in the expanded EU to block a majority decision. Ministers will meet again March 22 to try to end their impasse.
If they can't find a solution soon, however, it will be too late for the European Parliament to review the membership agreements before it adjourns for elections in May, and accession by the four would be pushed beyond the Jan. 1 target date.
The voting controversy reveals the Union at its worst, with concerns of domestic political reaction holding up the kind of progress and image boosting - in this case, the Union's enlargement - that the EU desperately needs.
Britain, and to a lesser extent Spain, are refusing any modification in the number of minority votes required to block a majority decision by EU ministers - even though the total number of votes would grow with new members. As a result, the EU would have greater difficulty making decisions, something that would thrill Eurosceptics in Britain's Parliament. Spain wants to protect the ``blocking minority'' of the soon-to-be-outnumbered Mediterranean members from what it worries will be ``northern tyranny.''
All the fretting over the effect new members will have could turn out to have been for naught, since none of the referendums are at this point a sure bet.
Of the four candidate countries, Austria appears to be closest to securing a favorable nod from voters. Recent polls show 57 percent planning to vote yes.
``Austrians are consumers, and they know their consumer goods will be cheaper if we join the EU,'' says Thomas Chorherr of Die Presse, the Vienna daily. Somewhat paradoxically, the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina is ``water to the mill'' of membership proponents. ``Many Austrians see [in Bosnia] how a small country that is not a member of any bloc fares in today's Europe.''
Opinion is much more fluid in the three Scandinavian countries. Finland's pro-membership forces got a boost from last month's election of stoutly pro-Union President Martti Ahtisaari. The Finns are cognizant of their economic dependence on the EU and worry about Russia's resurgent nationalism.
Intense debate in Norway
Norway is the only Scandinavian country where the public debate on membership is already intense. So far, the ``no'' forces dominate. ``You hear the same arguments coming from the same factions and parties that you did in 1972,'' says Mr. Lindahl, referring to the year Norwegians rejected an initial bid for membership.
``The issues are fish and culture,'' he adds, fresh from a trip to Oslo. ``You hear the same arguments about the southern Papists coming to take over Lutheran Norway.''
Sweden appears to be somewhere in between its two neighbors, with opponents still ahead in polls but with many observers predicting the large undecided camp will swing toward membership. ``Our economy is improving, there are job ads in the papers again, and that is boosting the kind of confidence needed for a `yes' vote,'' says Ingemar Dorfer, an adviser in the Swedish Foreign Ministry.
What a number of observers are noticing is the similarity between the debate in Scandinavian countries and the debate that preceded Denmark's initial ``no'' vote to the EU's Maastricht Treaty in June 1992.
Swedes are stumbling over questions of sovereignty and defence cooperation, Lindahl says. He also sees the same social cleavages that divided the Danes surfacing across Scandinavia: the urban, educated male tending to be for, with the rural, low-income female leaning against.