LONDON — A new treaty is being born in Europe, and it looks as though the birth will be a difficult one.

In theory, the subject matter of this new treaty ought to be straightforward. More states are being invited to join the European Union — five immediately and up to 10 thereafter — and the existing member states want to rearrange the institutional furniture of the union before they welcome in the new guests.

Ministers from all 15 member states are therefore assembling at Nice, on the French Riviera, to prepare a treaty document — likely to be named the Treaty of Nice and in effect a series of amendments to the existing treaties that govern the Union — which will enlarge the European Commission, adjust the membership of the European Parliament and, above all, streamline the ways in which the Council of Ministers, the central force in the Union, reaches decisions.

Unfortunately these proposed changes, which look so innocent and technical, raise issues of fundamental importance about the entire future shape of Europe. For what they involve is a big extension in the number of matters that can be decided by a majority vote among members rather than by unanimity. Individual states could therefore find themselves overruled not or outvoted not just on minor administrative matters, or on trade issues, as at present, but on the most politically sensitive items of all, such as taxation and foreign policy. And their one protection, the right to veto projects that threaten their national interest, will have been further eroded.

That is the price that must be paid, say the high European officials, if an enlarged EU of 20 states, and more in due course, is ever to decide anything and push ahead with the integration and ultimate full political union of Europe. Still more national sovereignty must be surrendered in the wider interest of an efficient and united continent.

The problem is that these changes, which carry forward substantially the integration process in the EU, come at a time when many Europeans feel they have had enough “Europe” for the time being and would like to be left alone. However sensible the individual proposals seem — for instance, for harmonizing employment laws, transport and environment laws, and social security arrangements, or completing the single financial market, or implementing common foreign policy, or allowing some member states to cooperate more closely without waiting for all the others — the net impact can only be to take the EU much further along the road to federation or, as some fear, a new kind of superpower or superstate.

Anxieties have been sharply heightened by three other major Euro-developments which, while not actually covered by the new treaty, all appear to point very strongly the same way.

First, there is the Euro-currency which has, of course, got off to a shaky start, sinking 30 percent against the dollar and around 40 percent against the yen, to the understandable dismay of many Japanese investors. It is proving very unpopular, with more than half the German public against it and the Danes refusing to join in at all. In Britain, the latest opinion poll puts 71 percent against becoming involved.

Second, there is the plan for a new European “rapid reaction force,” which also causes grave misgivings, not least because some see it as an embryonic European army. Its progenitors insist that it will help the existing NATO structure and not weaken it. But many Europeans, and many Americans, too, believe the whole project could lead to splits in the Atlantic alliance and duplication of effort, or, at worst, to a complete defense fiasco, given that almost no European countries seem ready to match their rhetoric and plans with actual increases in defense expenditure.

Third, there is the new Charter of Fundamental Rights on the table, which looks suspiciously like a draft European constitution. This is seen as causing utter legal confusion. Member states, including Britain, already incorporate a similar code, the European Convention on Human Rights, in their domestic laws. Now the prospect opens out of the European Court of Justice (the legal heart of the EU) wheeling in with yet another code of “rights” that could well lead to rival and conflicting judgments. In Britain it could also undermine many of the structural reforms so painfully achieved during the Thatcher years.

So it is no surprise that the mood is turning against another dose of European integration and that this kind of reform is seen by growing numbers of people, as the wrong way forward — not just for Britain but for Europe as a whole.

The proposed Treaty of Nice will need to be ratified in national legislatures and in very few member-state parliaments will it be greeted with much enthusiasm. In Britain it is likely to be strongly opposed. It will be criticized not only for what it offers, but also for what it leads to — more top-down aggrandizement by politicians and more central power-seeking when the mood of the age is toward decentralization and grassroots democracy.

If government leaders want their latest European plans to be more popular then they may have to absorb a difficult new lesson — namely that in the information age their electorates are more empowered, want a far greater say in affairs and value their diversity and differences increasingly. The Europe they want is looser and more flexible, not tighter and more rigid.

Above all, the simple lesson will have to be learned that forcing peoples together does not bind them together. On the contrary, it creates more divisions and antagonisms. The old reasons for building and uniting Europe have long since faded. Some new ones will have to be found, together with the new institutions to suit them. If the Treaty of Nice cannot reflect this new perspective, then both its advocates and the governments who back them, are going to have a very hard time.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.