European Union leaders are finding that success comes with a price. They meet today in Nice, France, for a critical summit that will modernize the EU and prepare it for new members and new responsibilities. Despite complete agreement that decision-making procedures must be changed, there is no consensus on what should be done or how. The only real reason to be optimistic about the prospect for some final agreement is this: The status quo is not sustainable.

The basic task this weekend is daunting: revise institutions designed for six countries so that they will work for five times that number. Thus far, EU procedures and institutions have been modified to accommodate its current 15 members, but the tweaking has gone as far as it can. The organization is already straining under the weight. The prospect of twice that number of countries will paralyze the EU, which would bring about its collapse. All the members acknowledge this, but that has not brought them any closer to a solution.

Institutional reform falls into three basic categories: modifying voting rules (extending the use of qualified majority voting), rebalancing voting weights on the Council of Ministers, and resizing the European Commission. Despite a year of meetings by experts, agreement has proved elusive in each area. All concede that more decisions should be made by majority — rather than a unanimous — vote, but they disagree on which issues. Each country holds different concerns dear, and they want to retain a veto on those. Unfortunately, governments cannot trade off support without undermining the entire reform effort. Similarly, all countries have to be represented in the European Commission, but giving each a seat would make it too big and unwieldy.

The key issue is the weighting of votes. At present, large states have more votes than small ones, but that influence has diminished as the EU has expanded. Germany is demanding more votes, to reflect its growing population and the addition of citizens from the former East Germany. France is resisting, even though it has 23 million fewer citizens, claiming a leading role as its right as a historic leader of Europe and a founding member of the EU. This issue has to be settled before questions surrounding the Commission’s size can be resolved.

Matters have been complicated by France’s role as president of the EU. Some representatives grumble that Paris has not worked hard enough to find common ground during the leadup to the summit. Instead, they charge that France has put its national interests ahead of those of the EU as a whole. That is understandable in most situations, but not when Paris holds the chair.

That is not all the European heads of state have on the agenda. They must also decide on the merits and means of “flexible cooperation,” a device that would allow states that are more gung-ho on certain integration projects to pursue them with the approval, but not the participation, of other governments. They are also likely to discuss their common defense project and the warning issued by U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen earlier in the week over coordination with NATO; the mad-cow scare that has slowly spread across the continent; and other food and safety issues.

If history is any guide, the chances of a breakdown are substantial. In 1997, European leaders failed to reach agreement on just these issues. The summit has already been extended a day to help reach accord, but even Mr. Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, gives even odds on a stalemate.

That will not do. The EU has important business to take care of, and existing institutions cannot handle it. Expansion is not just an option. The first group of new members is scheduled to take their seats on Jan. 1, 2003 — although that could be pushed back — and that will compound the pressure. Europe’s leaders have to start acting worthy of the name. Opinion polls show that most Europeans are in favor of adding new members to the Union over the next few years.

Europe must make the EU more democratic. That means recrafting institutions so that they balance the interests of member governments and making those institutions more transparent to better serve Europe’s citizens. Thus far, the bulk of the effort has focused on the former. Yet, all of that will come to naught — no matter what the outcome of this weekend’s summit — if the entire European project does not better reflect the wishes and needs of its individual citizens.

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