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IF FRENCH VOTERS REJECT EC TREATY, NEGATIVE EFFECTS WILL REVERBERATE

Beyond contagious nationalist wars in what was Yugoslavia, another specter is haunting Europe. It is the possibility that with less than three weeks to go until a crucial referendum, French voters will stop the unity of Western Europe in its tracks.

It was one thing when Denmark narrowly voted in June against the Maastricht Treaty for a single currency and common foreign and defense policies.But rejection by France, one of its main architects, would kill it and probably end two generations of progress that brought about the European Community.

The fallout would extend far beyond France. Here, President Francois Mitterrand would come under strong pressure to resign, as would the leaders of the main opposition parties who are advising their followers to vote "yes" in the referendum scheduled for Sept. 20.

But Prime Minister John Major also would be vulnerable in Britain, where a French rejection would kill any chance of treaty ratification by an already doubtful House of Commons.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl's policy of integrating a resurgent Germany into Europe would suffer a major setback.

Treaty opponents here discount such doomsday scenarios, but when polls tipped against treaty ratification last week in France, stock markets plunged throughout Western Europe.

Rejection would end neither the present EC nor its single market scheduled to go into effect by the end of the year. But would Sweden, Finland, Austria and Switzerland still want to join?

In an era of rising nationalism and general disenchantment with democratic governments, it could be years before the march toward unity begun after World War II would resume, if ever.

Opposition to closer political and economic unity makes strange bedfellows, ranging from the Communists on the left to Jean Marie Le Pen's National Front on the extreme right, not to mention dissidents in all major parties whose leaders favor ratification.

However sincere treaty opponents are, there is no doubt either that they would benefit from a "no" vote that would bring an upheaval.

Another strong current runs against the treaty, uniting nationalism with anti-foreigner prejudice and the fear of losing the economic protection that the increasing unity of Europe is doing away with.

It is a potent mixture.

Add the distrust of the Eurocrats in Brussels who are seen as trying to dictate everything from the pasteurization of French cheeses to the shape of cucumbers. They are scapegoats. Maastricht is seen as the work of bureaucrats taking advantage of a "democratic deficit" in EC institutions.

My own opinion is that rejecting the treaty would be a historic mistake for France and Europe with consequences impossible to calculate. But it's now up to the French.