French ambivalence on union pact has European establishment scared

September 02, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The Maastricht Treaty on European monetary and political union is in trouble again, and in France of all places.

The Danes in June rejected the treaty because, among other reasons, they resented their political leaders' attempts to frighten them into approving it.

Today French political leaders are doing the same thing: They are predicting political and economic disarray, chaos even, should the French people veto the treaty in their referendum, set for Sept. 20.

"If the 'no' wins, Europe will be broken," warned Jacques Chirac, leader of the Rally for the Republic, a center-right party.

But there is a difference between the anxieties of the French and those of the Danish leaders. The Danish leaders never believed the treaty would be beaten; the French leaders are really scared it will be.

Polls in France over the past two weeks have said both that the French would approve the treaty and that they would not. A cliff-hanger seems most likely.

France was the country that was supposed to give the Maastricht Treaty a resounding endorsement. That is why President Francois Mitterrand contrived a referendum. He didn't have to; he could have had it approved by the National Assembly. But he wanted a popular imprimatur on the document.

Jacques Delors, the president of the European Commission, who is very popular in France and the godfather of the Maastricht Treaty, has said he would leave office should it be rejected in France. Mr. Delors doesn't make idle threats.

The Belgians, the Dutch, even the British, the most skeptical among the European Community countries, have also been clanging the alarm bells. Leon Brittan, Britain's commissioner for competition policy, warned that virtually all EC initiatives would be hurt by a French no vote.

These include not only a possible end to the drive toward monetary union, the creation of a single currency, but a forestalling of the Single Market, the regime of open borders to the flow of all goods and services among the EC countries, which is supposed to come into effect starting in January.

The Maastricht Treaty, named after the Dutch town where it was fashioned last November, has been approved so far only by Ireland and Greece. France is the only country left to have a referendum. The other EC countries are expected to approve it through their parliaments, even Britain, where a fight is expected.

Denmark is the only country to reject it. The treaty has to be approved by all, if it is to come into effect. It would lead the EC states to a single currency, the ecu, by the century's end; encourage more coordination in the formulation of foreign and defense policies; and advance the idea of European citizenship.

It is a large step toward a federal Europe, a step many people in Europe are wary of taking. But as many, or more perhaps, are warier of not taking it.

At least that has always been the guiding assumption among EC leaders. In Ireland last June, when the treaty was put to a referendum, there was a great fear it would fall victim to Irish obsession with abortion.

But the Irish, having realized great benefit from the EC, approved it overwhelmingly. That gave a lift to the treaty's prospects, encouraged the belief that should further endorsement be won in France, then Britain and the Danes might be persuaded to change their minds.

Now, in France, the unexpected occurs, what only a couple of months ago might have been called the unthinkable. Why? There are many reasons. The French are down on President Mitterrand and his Socialists; about 60 percent disapprove of him. They are disgruntled; unemployment is high. As in many other EC countries, there is a feeling that control is moving too fast to Brussels, the Belgian and EC capital, and a reluctance to enter the brave new world of monetary union.

And yet these reasons do not dispel the question: How could the French, of all the peoples of Europe, do such a thing when polls indicate that, despite doubts about the Maastricht Treaty, the French still strongly endorse the idea of a unified Europe?

France and Germany form the keystone of the European construct. They joined together in the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 with the aim of tying their economies so tightly that the kind of disintegration that led to so many wars would not be allowed to happen again.

At the heart of French policy was the belief that France would benefit from this fusion, economically and politically; it has proved to be true. If the franc is strong today it is because the German mark is strong.

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