THE effort to draw more nations into the European Union is on a roll. But it seems that even a slight bump may be enough to knock expansion off track.
The EU is in the midst of a northern push; the Nordic nations of Finland, Sweden, and Norway are all slated to join by year's end (along with Austria).
Adding these four nations would make the EU a 16-member free-trade zone of about 400 million citizens and contribute nearly half-a-trillion dollars to its gross domestic product, providing stiff competition for the world's other major trade blocs, including the North American Free Trade Agreement states: the US, Canada, and Mexico.
Germany, which now holds the rotating EU presidency, is already pushing for another new round of expansion - to the formerly communist nations of Central Europe. Expansion is a critical component of the EU's ambitious grand strategy of creating a pan-Continental federal Europe. Realization of the EU's growth blueprint would help forge a Europe so politically and economically interconnected that it would make Continental conflict untenable in the post-cold-war era.
Recent events, including Finland's referendum approval on Oct. 16 for EU membership, boosted momentum for expansion. But pitfalls await that could smash current plans. Even trivialities, such as milk quotas, could stall the EU's widening.
As for northern expansion, Euro-federalists are feeling better after Finland's vote, in which 57 percent of the population backed EU membership. Finland thus joins Austria, which held its referendum in June, as sure-fire EU entries.
Now Euro-eyes turn to Sweden and Norway, which will hold EU referendums on Nov. 13 and Nov. 28, respectively. Both the Swedish and Norwegian governments have agreed on conditions for EU entry, but popular approval is needed before the agreements can take effect.
Opinion polls indicate opposition to the EU in both nations is slightly greater than support for membership. But the results are expected to be close.
The Finnish ``yes'' vote puts the Swedish and Norwegian nay-sayers on the defensive. Pro-EU forces in Sweden and Norway now argue that rejection would mean that Stockholm and Oslo would fall behind their Nordic cousin economically.
Nevertheless, skepticism runs especially deep among Norwegians, who voted against EU membership in 1972. Many still feel that the benefits of greater European integration would not compensate for the partial loss of sovereignty. The EU requires members to cede broad decisionmaking powers to the Euro-bureaucracy headquartered in Brussels. Norwegians are most reluctant to grant the Eurocrats partial control of their plentiful natural resources, including vast oil reserves.
Meanwhile, discussions on eastern expansion are still preliminary, with the year 2000 mentioned as the target date for the accession of the first Central European nations. Hungary and Poland have already applied. Other prime EU candidates are the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
When it comes to the East - a region still struggling to make the transition from communism to market democracy - many powerful EU members, notably France and Britain, aren't enthralled with the prospect of trying to absorb comparatively poor and unstable nations so quickly.
But the East has an important advocate in Germany, the EU's most populous and economically powerful member. And at an EU foreign ministers' meeting Oct. 4, German officials persuaded reluctant colleagues to agree on an eastern expansion strategy.
The plan allows Central European nations to participate immediately as observers in EU meetings. It also calls for the establishment of clear membership criteria for EU aspirants in the East. Tactics will be discussed at the next biannual EU summit, scheduled for December in the German city of Essen.
Even if the desire for expansion is there, many questions still surround the EU's ability to accommodate 20 or more members. One question, many already ask, is who is going to pay for it?
Germany has served as EU paymaster so far, but reunification's enormous costs will test its bank account. Projections show that at the current rate of EU expenditure, spending would have to increase up to 75 percent to incorporate the EU's five leading Central European candidates.
Expansion could stumble on matters much less substantial than money. Spain, for example, had threatened to veto the planned admission of Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Norway, unless a fine for exceeding milk-production quotas was dismissed. Spain withdrew the threat after a deal was reached at an Oct. 21 EU finance ministers' meeting.