French Debate Sends Ripples Across Europe

Uncertainty on outcome of vote on EC unity shakes financial markets, political prospects

ONLY French citizens will vote in the country's Sept. 20 referendum on European union, but the impact the French campaign is having in neighboring countries and the attention it commands show just how intertwined the Europe of the European Community has already become.

Like Denmark's June vote against the EC's Maastricht Treaty for deeper economic and political integration, this month's French vote is already sending waves through an increasingly doubtful Europe.

In Britain, Prime Minister John Major faces sharp criticism from within his own Conservative Party ranks, as some members of Parliament use the surprisingly strong campaign against the Maastricht Treaty in France to demand a referendum in Britain.

Mr. Major, who supports the treaty, rejects a British referendum on the grounds that parliamentary ratification - the method chosen by nine of the EC's 12 members - is sufficient. But critics say that position leaves France looking more democratic than Britain, a situation many Britons find intolerable.

In Germany, furor has quieted over the Germanophobic tone that sprouted in the French referendum campaign early this month. But France's focus on the consequences of the Maastricht Treaty has helped keep alive German fears of lost economic stability under the treaty's proposed monetary union, and of increased "borderless" crime in an integrated Europe.

In Italy, where Prime Minister Giuliano Amato has pegged his program for dealing with the country's economic crisis to the tough fiscal requirements of Maastricht's monetary union, government efforts to force Draconian economic measures through Parliament have been stymied by a wait-and-see attitude toward the French referendum. Interest-rate jumps

Throughout Europe, uncertainty over the outcome of the French vote and concern over the impact a "no" vote would have on monetary union plans have caused turbulence and depression in financial markets, and are partly responsible for a recent spate of interest-rate jumps.

"The French referendum is being watched as a reflection of where Europe as a whole finds itself right now, and where it is headed," says Rudiger Stephan, a specialist in Franco-German affairs in Stuttgart, Germany.

Like Dr. Stephan, supporters of Maastricht's ratification throughout Europe are breathing easier this week with French opinion polls showing a majority once again in favor of the treaty.

Most observers believe President Francois Mitterrand's three-hour appearance on French television last week - discussing the treaty with French citizens and noted journalists, and debating a leader of the anti-Maastricht forces - went a long way toward reassuring French voters about the treaty's consequences. Support for Maastricht jumped more than 5 points in some polls - a return to a "yes" majority in several cases - after the presidential program.

Yet it comes as a surprise to many Europeans that 40 percent or more of the French who have decided still say they will vote no. In addition, more than a quarter remain undecided. France has long been considered among the most pro-Europe of EC countries.

Recent surveys show a marked increase in what experts call "Euro-skepticism," with many French expressing fears of lost sovereignty, diluted identity, and threatened security in a more unified Europe. The second thoughts the French are having before they vote on the Maastricht treaty do not stop at the French border.

German analysts doubt Maastricht could muster majority support among voters if a referendum were held there today, and a recent British poll showed better than two-thirds of voters opposed to Maastricht.

Even in a country like the Netherlands, which in 1991 proposed a new treaty that was openly federalist and envisaged creating a United States of Europe, the French example has led some intellectuals and politicians either to express doubts about Maastricht or to criticize the lack of official debate on the treaty in the Netherlands.

Even if the French vote yes, the doubts hanging over the Maastricht Treaty will not have vanished. The Community will still have to find a solution to the problem presented by Denmark. Danish officials say they will call a new referendum next year, perhaps on a British-inspired plan that would allow Denmark to "opt out" of those aspects of Maastricht - monetary union and common defense - that the Danish most deeply oppose.

But with polls now showing a much wider majority of Danes opposing the treaty than the razor-thin majority of the June vote, finding a solution that satisfies Denmark's skepticism may not be so easy.

With France the only large EC country holding a referendum on Maastricht, many citizens of neighboring EC countries appear to be living the French vote vicariously. Vicarious debate

"I'd say people here are envious somewhat that the French have this lively debate going on, that they have access to information on the treaty, and that then they get to vote on it," says Thomas Kielinger, editor of the German political weekly Rheinischer Merkur.

He and other German observers say the French debate on the Maastricht Treaty is about the only issue keeping the Germans from being fully preoccupied with such internal issues as unification's mounting costs and anti-foreigner violence.

The same interest prevails in Italy, observers say, with Sept. 20 now marked on calendars as a key to the country's economic course.

"The Italian people are following more the French referendum closely than might be expected, because they see Maastricht as a condition for setting a new economic policy," says Enzo Bartocci, a political scientist at the University of Rome. "If the French say no, then Maastricht fails, and suddenly our problems become more complex."

Important contract bargaining this week between the government and workers' unions for reducing Italian labor costs have already been slowed by union demands that the discussions be held up to take the French vote into account.

"It's a French vote," says Professor Bartocci, "but as Italians are finding out, its impact will be felt at many levels across Europe."

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