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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EU Meeting Is Too Important To Get Wrong

The "nattering nabobs of negativism," as my fellow columnist William Safire once described them, are at it again. Pundits across Europe are predicting failure as the most likely outcome of the European Union's landmark conference on internal reform that opens Friday at a converted Fiat car factory in Turin.

They ignore one point. Important EU conferences always start off with member-states holding apparently irreconcilable negotiating positions. Then, just as inevitably, compromises are eventually found. That is what will happen on this occasion -- not least because the European Union's 15 governments understand that the price of failure would be appallingly high.

The Inter-Governmental Conference, or IGC as it is known in Eurospeak, is expected to last for more than a year. Its basic aim is to reform the EU institutions and working procedures so that, early in the next century, the Union can embrace up to 12 new members, mostly former Communist countries in Eastern Europe.

Many difficult topics are up for discussion. Should the European Parliament have more powers so that it finally looks like a genuine legislature? Should the European Union have common foreign and defense policies so that a disaster like the experience in former Yugoslavia is never repeated? How can the decision-making process in the Council of Ministers, representing national governments, be made more efficient?

At present, a wide gulf separates Germany and the Benelux countries, which favor ever closer EU integration, from Britain, which wants to limit the powers of Union institutions and reduce the EU to a kind of free-trading area in which national governments have the decisive say. The current scare over British beef products in Europe could reinforce the conservative government's doubts about integration. France is somewhere in the middle -- keen to retain national sovereignty, but equally keen to go ahead with single European currency.

In the end, a deal will have to be done on all these issues, because the consequences of deadlock are too awful to contemplate. An unreformed European Union would be incapable of absorbing even the most promising of the emerging democracies -- the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia.

Other prospective members that are in more difficult circumstances, such as Bulgaria and Romania, would be left completely in the cold. The overall effect would be an increasing threat to the stability of Eastern Europe. The momentous opportunities created by the fall of the Berlin Wall would be thrown away.

Given that no EU member-state wants to stand accused of shirking its responsibilities before history, the IGC must come up with answers. The essential ingredients of a deal are that Britain must soften its obstinate opposition to closer EU integration, and that Germany and its allies must make compromises on specific issues such as the move to a common defense policy. Mediterranean countries will have to accept that the "structural funds" program -- transfers of money from rich EU states to poor ones -- needs radical reform if the Union is to embrace Eastern Europe.

All this can be done, if there is enough political will. The European has a duty not to get it wrong.