MOST everyone has had the uncomfortable experience of arriving for dinner at someone's home, only to find the hosts are not ready - and, worse yet, arguing over whose fault it is.
That is something like the position of the four candidates to the European Union. After negotiating to enter the EU, Austria, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have arrived on the doorstep only to find that those who asked them in are embroiled in a quarrel over the conditions they have to settle before they can open the door.
Now to the guests' further dismay, the arguing has degenerated into a ``crisis'' grave enough to leave the four standing on the doorstep for some time to come.
The situation would be amusing if it did not go to the very heart of European integration and its future.
The specific question at hand relates to decisionmaking and the votes that will be required in an expanded Council of Ministers for a minority to block the will of the majority. More broadly, as French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Tuesday, it is a question that will determine whether the future, larger EU is an institution that works or not.
``What we have is a confrontation between two ways of conceiving [our] enlargement,'' Mr. Juppe said. ``One way envisions it as a means to the dilution of the EU and to its paralysis, while the other allows for the Union's reinforcement.''
Currently the EU is divided 10 to 2, with 10 countries approving a simple prorating of the current blocking minority of 23 votes up to 27 once the four new members are in.
But Britain and Spain oppose that idea because it would end the long-held principle that two large countries and one small country together can block the majority. They want the blocking minority to remain at 23: Spain, because it fears a ``Nordic shift'' in the Union's dominant political philosophy and wants to preserve a ``Mediterranean veto''; and Britain, because it fears a tyranny of small countries.
Critics of the Spanish and British position point out that the Union already has a hard time making decisions, and gnash their teeth at the thought of a proportionally smaller minority having the power to hold up the rest.
But the real concern on both sides is the setting of precedent.
``The question we are now facing is a shadow cast in advance of a debate which is inevitable,'' says British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd.
When the European Community became the European Union with the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty, the 12 members agreed to a full overhaul of its structure in 1996. This would take place after the anticipated accession of Austria and the Nordic countries, but before the arrival of a dozen additional members from Central and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean (Cyprus and Malta). With 1996 looming on the horizon, both sides in the quarrel believe whatever is decided now will set the stage for the Union's direction.
In fact, the whole issue would have been put off until then if the EU were not forced to make a decision by the knocking at the door of the first four. Austria and the Nordic countries are supposed to become members Jan. 1, 1995 - but that window is closing fast.
The European Parliament must approve the four candidates' complex membership agreements before early May, when it recesses for elections. The new parliament will not convene until the fall, too late for the candidate countries to hold referendums at home by Jan. 1.
Without some decision soon, the memberships are likely to be put off to at least mid-1995. That may seem inconsequential, but it would be a psychological blow to the Union - and could complicate the candidates' referendums.
EU foreign ministers will take up the issue this weekend in Greece, and probably again in Brussels next week. But doubts are running high that a solution can be found by then. ``This is not a question of figures but of principle, so I don't see a compromise,'' says Belgian Foreign Minister Willy Claes. ``We are facing a serious crisis.''
Britain is not opposed to compromise, insists Mr. Hurd - but he makes it clear that the bar is set high.
``We need to prevent the erosion of nation-states in the [Union],'' he says. Britain wants to be part of Europe, he continues, but ``it has to be a Europe in which we are at ease.''
In a sense an old debate on whether to ``deepen'' the Union's institutions, or ``widen'' its membership is still going on. But in the meantime the four candidates wait on the outside, their fate in suspense.
Journalists from those countries send home reports of their ministers cooling their heels while the EU quarrels on, thus reinforcing the impression of a cumbersome union that cannot decide what it wants to be.
``At this rate Russia will have time to invade your country before [the EU] ever decides you can come in!'' quipped a Brussels-based French journalist Tuesday to a Finnish colleague. The Finn smiled, but said that voters back home might not consider it such a funny joke.