PARIS — Paris. -- If it is defeated, the four-decade old construction of a united Europe will grind to a halt, leading the continent's major powers to go their own way. The European Monetary System that has insured financial stability will disintegrate, causing chaos on the stock and money markets. Europe's role in the world will diminish, with the old continent losing the chance of competing against the United States and Japan. An impotent European Community will watch as many of the newly independent republics that once made up the Soviet Union disintegrate into warring tribes, in the manner of Yugoslavia.
Even worse, the old German demons will rise from their ashes, engendering German expansionism to the east and resulting in a Europe economically and politically dominated by an ever stronger, arrogant and united superpower.
If it is approved, it will mean the end of French sovereignty and values. Workers will lose their hard-earned social benefits in a Europe run by cold-hearted capitalists and technocrats, while the small farmer will simply disappear. Unemployment will continue to grow. Crime and drug trafficking, controlled by the Mafia, will mushroom, even as the country is invaded by wave after wave of poor immigrants from Eastern Europe and North Africa.
Even worse, the new Europe will come under the political and economic control of an ever stronger, arrogant and united Germany that will not hesitate to impose its economic system on the other countries of the Community.
Such has been the tenor of the debate leading to today's crucial vote in France on the Maastricht Treaty on European unity. It has not lacked in melodrama. Yet despite the hyperbole and scare tactics used by both sides, everyone does agree that whatever the outcome, the French referendum will mark a watershed in the four-decade old history of the European Community.
Only one thing is certain: if the French fail to ratify it, Maastricht will become a dead letter. What happens next is pretty much anybody's guess, but it is certain that the European Community will never be the same.
The fallout of a possible French rejection became evident even before voters went to the polls, with the European Monetary System suffering its most serious crisis last week following a decision by the British and Italian governments to temporarily withdraw their currencies from the European exchange rate mechanism, thereby allowing them to float freely. The developments raised serious questions about the very future of European monetary co-operation, leading most analysts to conclude that a French "no" to Maastricht would likely mean the end of a system that has insured relative monetary stability since its founding in 1979.
Proponents of the treaty say that a "no" vote would mean an end to European unity for decades, and they insist that the treaty cannot be renegotiated because of the deep divisions among the 12-member states. A renegotiation will open a Pandora's box, with every country clamoring for special privileges and exceptions.
Opponents assert that events, especially the breakup of the Soviet Union and the rejection of the treaty by Danish voters in a referendum last June 2, have overtaken the treaty. They insist that a vote against Maastricht is not a vote against Europe. "What we propose is not an end of Europe, but a different way of building it," says Philippe Seguin, a conservative deputy who made a national reputation for himself through his opposition to Maastricht.
The document in question, agreed to last December by the 12 European Community heads of government, would create a common currency known as the Ecu by 1999 and create an independent central bank to manage it. It would also propel the Community toward the establishment and implementation of a common foreign and defense policy and increase cooperation among Community members in such areas as education, scientific research and the fight against crime.
The French debate came as a surprise to everyone, especially to the French themselves. Until last May, few knew what Maastricht was all about. Unlike in Britain, Europe has never been an issue in French politics, in large part because the construction of Europe is a French idea initiated by Gen. Charles de Gaulle and Jean Monet, who is considered to be the founder of the European Community. De Gaulle compared the project to the arduous and lengthy task of constructing a cathedral.
Unfortunately for the pro-Maastricht forces, the current debate, which everyone agrees was essential to insure popular support for the concept of European unity, has taken place against a backdrop of war, recession, and growing uncertainty about the future.