A GRAND conclave on the future of Europe - four years in the making - has run into formidable stumbling blocks that may limit the drive for more unity.
Today in Turin, Italy, the 15 nations of the European Union launch what is expected to be a year of talks. Negotiators will try to figure out how a system designed for the six original members will cope with a potential membership of 27 or 30.
This is the EU's most important meeting since 1991, when it designed a treaty in Maastricht, the Netherlands, laying out a blueprint for monetary and political union.
But the Europewide controversy over the "mad cow" problem in Britain and a widening rift between France and Germany over the objectives of the conference threaten to derail the Turin talks.
Emotional headlines on the health hazards of British beef do little to inspire public confidence in open borders. And it has been a truism in Europe that no progress toward unity has been made without a clear Franco-German accord - an accord that has not been reached in the run-up to Turin.
'Poisoning the menu'
"The mad cow affair risks poisoning the menu of the heads of the 15 [nations] that hold their summit tomorrow in Turin," said yesterday's conservative French daily, Le Figaro. "At the hour of decision for the reform of European institutions, the process of decision in this affair can only be seen as a counterexample for a united Europe."
British officials challenged as high-handed and unjustified the EU's worldwide export ban on British beef that was imposed Wednesday, showing more than their usual suspicion of EU powers. "The mad cow issue couldn't have come at a worse time," said a spokesman for the European Commission, the EU's executive branch. "If we fail this time [at the Turin summit], we will have missed a historic opportunity to build Europe."
The Maastricht Treaty, which was ratified by all member states in 1993, set deadlines for key steps to attain these goals, including budgetary targets for monetary union and a timetable to revise the treaty to adjust to more members.
Today, those deadlines are proving tough to meet.
Europe is coping with stagnant growth and double-digit unemployment rates. Franco-German relations, once anchored by a close relationship between German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the late French President Francois Mitterrand, are still adjusting to the mercurial style of new French President Jacques Chirac.
The Turin intergovernmental conference was supposed to be a technical affair, answering such questions as: Should the island state of Malta (population 370,000) have the same representation on the European Commission as Germany (population 81 million)? Should Slovakia or Lithuania have a veto over the future deployment of European forces?
But more explosive issues for Europe are looming. Four days before the start of the conference, Mr. Chirac called for a "European social model" to be considered in the negotiations, including significant spending on infrastructure and employment projects.
"We were frankly surprised by the [French] president's announcement," said a German diplomat. "We do not want to overload Turin with too many other questions."
And German Finance Minister Theo Waigel rejected the French proposal, insisting that job-creation programs should remain "decentralized."
Even disregarding the mad cow problem, European partners disagree how to make progress. Germany favors a strong federal Europe with a common foreign police. Britain opposes giving further power to Brussels, the EU's headquarters. France, meanwhile, supports the goal of a common foreign policy, but opposes strengthening the European Parliament.
The best that Brussels bureaucrats can hope for is to forge a consensus among 14 of the member states, and "wait for British elections next year in the hope for a change in the British position," says John Edwards of the Brussels-based Belmont European Policy Center. "The mad cows may move up that election."
Yet many European businesses still hope for progress at this summit. "We're still very pro-Europe," says Jack Reemers, a spokesman for Philips Electronics, the Dutch consumer electronics firm that helped draft the policy document that led to the Maastricht Treaty. "Currency fluctuations seriously influence our finances.... a single currency in Europe would make our life much easier."