The rest of Europe - and much of the United States - will be watching anxiously Sunday when the people of France go to the polls to vote on the historic Maastricht Treaty.
At stake is the future of Western Europe. A vote in favor of the treaty would move the Europeans toward greater economic and political unity through the creation of a common currency and a common foreign and defense policy for the European Economic Community. A vote against the pact would derail for decades or longer the efforts of the past 40 years of negotiations aimed at reducing the divisiveness and warfare that have at times made Europe a burden to itself and a menace to some of its neighbors.Until last year, with polls showing approval of the pact by 70 percent of the French, support for the pact seemed so solid that France was not even planning a referendum.
But then Denmark narrowly rejected the treaty and the French started having second thoughts. As a result, the election is now considered a tossup.
The treaty covering the 12 major countries of Europe cannot work without France. Consequently, its rejection Sunday could have dire economic and diplomatic consequences.
For one thing, it would increase the turmoil that already has driven the dollar to new lows against the German mark and forced other European countries to revalue their currencies.
For another, it would force France to find some other way of countering the newly reunited Germany, its historic rival.
Up to a point, rejection of the treaty would still mean business as usual for the European Economic Community. But one big reason for the treaty was to require the member-governments to control their budgets. As matters now stand, the EEC has only limited power to stop members from dipping into the community's common pool of cash and overspending on pet pro-jects at home. This practice simply cannot persist.
As long as Europe remains divided by different languages and cultures, there are sharp limits to how far and fast it can go toward greater unity. But Europe already has made great progress. The EEC already has a common currency for accounting purposes. A common currency for consumers, which could save Europeans up to $18 billion a year, would be the next logical step.
Likewise, the 12 major nations of Europe already have eliminated customs duties for products that cross their borders, created a common passport and jointly developed many weapons systems. It's only logical to keep pushing for still more unity.
Like it or not, the fact remains that improvements in transportation and communication keep making the world in general and Europe in particular a smaller place in which to live and do business. France can try to resist this trend only at the risk of stagnation and needless bickering.