CONFRONTED by vociferous skeptics, the European Union finds itself at a critical juncture as it strives to deepen integration efforts.
Beginning with European Parliament elections, the citizens and politicians of Europe will make decisions over the next few months that will go a long way in determining how large and homogenized the EU will become.
The vote to fill the 567-member European Parliament is on June 9 in Britain, Ireland, Denmark, and the Netherlands, and June 12 in the other EU nations. Also on June 12, Austria will hold a national referendum on joining the European Union.
The Euro-Parliament election is the first since the Maastricht Treaty on European Union took effect last November. At that time, it appeared the pact would put Europe on the fast track to federalization. But since then, opposition to complete integration - particularly the introduction of a common currency - has become more vocal, and many national governments have cooled on the idea of a federal Europe.
``A centralized Europe is no Europe - it's a communist model It's absolutely Utopian,'' says Manfred Brunner, a former European bureaucrat in Brussels who has emerged as the Maastricht Treaty's most high-profile critic in Germany.
Mr. Brunner, who now heads the right-wing Union of Free Citizens movement, has been pilloried by the German left, which asserts he harbors a hidden agenda based on antiforeigner nationalism. Brunner counters that he favors closer cooperation among European states, but not in a federal arrangement. ``The character of Europe requires a confederation because of the cultural differences. It's not suited to the American model,'' he says.
The level of support that Brunner's movement - along with other radical or ``protest'' parties on both left and right - receives in the Euro-Parliament vote will send an important signal to EU decision-makers. A strong protest vote or a low level of participation could cause some important proponents of EU integration, such as German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, to reconsider EU policies, observers say.
Many in Germany, the economic engine of the EU, consider the Euro-Parliament result an important litmus test for the German federal elections in October. Mr. Kohl faces a tough reelection battle in October and thus is likely to tread carefully on the EU issue if a significant number of Germans vote against his Christian Democratic Union on June 12. That, in turn, could affect the EU, as Germany in July will assume the rotating EU presidency and responsibility for setting the European agenda until the end of 1994.
In a few other nations, especially in Spain and Britain, the Euro-Parliament vote is being seen more as a referendum on the popularity of incumbent governments than as an important stage in EU development. The vote is an important indicator for Spanish President Felipe Gonzalez and British Prime Minister John Major as they struggle to retain their offices.
That people would view the Euro-vote through the prism of domestic politics is not unusual. Many observers consider the European Parliament to be nothing more than a backwater for has-been politicians.
For most of its existence, which began in the 1950s, the European Parliament has held only ceremonial powers - a place for debate but not for putting a stamp on policy.
Responsibility for the drafting, passage, and implementation of EU legislation has always been the domain of the European Commission, the EU's standing executive body, and the Council of Ministers, comprising the member states' foreign ministers. The most significant authority held by the Euro-Parliament is the right of veto over the EU budget.
Under Maastricht provisions, the Parliament will gain slightly increased powers. New members of the European Parliament, for example, will have a limited right to draft legislation on social and environmental issues.
PERHAPS more important for the EU is who will replace Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission, the bureaucratic arm responsible for the Union's day-to-day functioning. A decision is expected to be made at the June 24-25 EU summit in Corfu, Greece.
France and Germany prefer the candidacy of Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene. But that has sparked spirited resistance by Dutch Premier Ruud Lubbers, another candidate, who is calling on other EU members to resist being dictated to by Paris and Bonn. A bitter public feud could harm integration efforts.
Meanwhile, the Austrian referendum on EU membership could set the tone for similar popular votes this autumn in the Nordic nations of Norway, Sweden, and Finland. The referendums are the last stage in what has been an arduous process of accession for the four nations. A majority of their populations must support EU membership for the countries to join.
Opinion polls have shown the Austrian vote too close to call, with 48 percent indicating they will vote yes and 46 percent no. Of the Nordic nations, only in Finland do polls show a majority favoring EU membership.