Recently I was in Oxford for a fascinating meeting called expressly to consider the issues involved in this prospective explosion of expansion and integration. Businessmen, academics, journalists and officials came together from the UK, both halves of Germany, Switzerland and Italy to offer their widely differing scenarios and prescriptions, and it was only the fact that the Polish group had to pull out at the last moment to sort out some crisis in their own turbulent economy that denied us a further and no doubt completely different set of perspectives.
The complexities were probably summed up most succinctly by William Wallace, the deputy director of London's Royal Institute of International Affairs. First, he said, will come Sweden, Austria and very probably Switzerland, now that they are no longer inhibited by the need to maintain neutrality in the East-West confrontation. They are prosperous free-market democracies and will be universally welcome. After them, the top tier from Eastern Europe, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and, slightly more problematically, Poland can probably put forward at least as strong a case for entry as Spain and Portugal, and will get an early go-ahead.
But after that things get progressively more foggy. As Wallace says, there is effectively no agreed definition of eligibility within which to assess priority between, say, Bulgaria and Lithuania, or between demands for special treatment from Albania and Iceland. Nor, more fundamentally, are there any agreed criteria for calling a halt to expansion. Catholics and Christian Democrats (now apparently including the British Conservatives) favour some formula like "the re-emergence of Western Christendom" (which would bring in Scandinavia and northern Yugoslavia, but cut out Greece and the southern Balkans).
Others talk about "sharing the heritage of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the ideas of French Revolution", which would cover a lot of territory but arguably would exclude both southern Italy and Spain. And no one yet seems to have devised a form of words that would allow the acceptance of Poland and Romania but debar Moldavia, the Ukraine or even Russia itself, if Boris Yeltsin should take it into his head to apply. That would be de Gaulle's "Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals" with a vengeance. But could that really be the basis for a stable, self-sustaining Community?
It is easy, of course, for the existing members to follow de Gaulle's frequently quoted example and just say "No" when a really impossible candidate appears. But that may not be the end of the matter. All round Europe's rather hazy periphery, from Marrakesh to Murmansk, an increasing number of envious or desperate people are seeking to force their way inside, illegally if necessary. Already the holiday beaches along the northern Mediterranean are getting as difficult to police as the US-Mexican border. How much effort are we prepared to put into keeping the would-be European hordes at bay?
We are likely to be hearing a lot more of such riddles as the search really gets underway for that elusive European pimpernel.
(Peter Wilsher is assistant editor of the Sunday Express.)