WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The people, worms that they are, are capable of any depravity, particularly with ballots. So Europe's governing class has not consulted the people unduly about plans for ever-closer European union. Or is it to be federalism? Whatever, the people will be told their destination, in due time.
But on Sunday the French people may commit what advanced thinkers everywhere consider the ultimate impudence. They may vote against the Maastricht Treaty, thereby producing a prudent pause in a process hitherto virtually untinged with democracy.
This referendum came about because of the arrogance of the French government, and if the vote is ''no,'' it will be because of the arrogance of all the Eurocrats pushing Europe's peoples down an inadequately discussed path.
Last December leaders of the 12 nations of the European Community met in Maastricht, the Netherlands, to sign a treaty that would sap individual nations' sovereignty over currency, defense and foreign policies. But in May Denmark's temperate and sophisticated electorate became the first electorate offered a chance to express itself by referendum on the treaty. The Danes said ''no.''
Germany's Chancellor Kohl, haughtily indifferent to geography, said the Danes would have to decide whether they wanted to be in Europe at all. The not-so-subliminal message was that in Europe's new order, small nations should be seen but not heard.
In response to Denmark's impertinence, French President Mitterrand serenely scheduled a referendum on Maastricht. He assumed that France would perform its historic duty of pointing backward people toward civilization, which supposedly now means creeping federalism.
At the time polls showed a substantial pro-Maastricht majority. But time passed, debate -- heaven forfend! -- broke out, and support withered. The French government panicked and printed million copies of the 48-page treaty, which may have been a mistake. The provisions intimate further draining away of sovereignty from the representative institutions of the 12 nations, and further accretion of power by the Brussels bureaucrats with their manic itch to regulate all of life, an itch expressed in a cataract of a zillion rules.
If the French reject Maastricht, they will have done the right thing for many reasons, some of them dubious. President Mitterrand, like almost any head of government in his 12th year, has worn out his welcome and many French voters may say ''no'' to the treaty as a way of saying ''no'' to him. French farmers will vote ''no'' to protest the EC's tentative moves toward sanity regarding agriculture subsidies. (The ''common agriculture policy'' was born 30 years ago when Europe's memories of food shortages and faith in government planning were both strong. Today, with 7 percent of the EC work force in agriculture, 60 percent of the EC's budget goes to support agriculture.)
The EC's supine non-response to Serbia's aggression against Bosnia suggests to many Maastricht opponents that ''Europe'' is an abstraction serving to shelter individual nations from responsibility to act. The disintegration of the Soviet empire and of Yugoslavia has sent tides of immigrants surging into EC nations, and many people suspect, reasonably, that Maastricht moves their nation toward surrender of control over immigration policies.
President Mitterrand is a socialist who a decade ago had to beat a pell-mell retreat from his fling with ''socialism in one country.'' The head of the EC Commission, Jacques Delors, is another French socialist. Part of Maastricht's charm for them is that it advances through Brussels the statism and general bossiness that has been rejected at the polls.
The Cold War was a reason for European consolidation. The sudden end of the Cold War caused Mr. Mitterrand to try to rush the process before people had time to think anew. Chancellor Kohl -- perhaps the last German leader in the Konrad Adenauer tradition: suspicious of Germany's long-term stability unless integrated into something larger -- cooperated. But many Europeans worry that federalism would anchor Europe to Germany, not Germany to Europe.
This week the Bundesbank's small cut in its interest rate -- large enough to cause turmoil in currency markets -- was an act of solidarity among Europe's governing class, an attempt to help pro-Maastricht forces in France by making Germany seem congenial. But yesterday it triggered more panic and drove the British out of the European monetary system. It demonstrated how dominant Germany is apt to be in any European structure.
In what used to be Yugoslavia and the Soviet empire, Europe is witnessing the painful process of prying apart political amalgamations that never should have been amalgamated. A vote against Maastricht asserts this sound maxim: What a millennium of distinct national experiences have put asunder, let no one casually put together.
9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.