The decisive moment for European unity was supposed to be a year from now, when Europe's politicians decide which nations meet the criteria to join a single currency, called the euro.
But the battle to convince Europe's voters that the euro is still worth the price is now clearly engaged. On April 21, French President Jacques Chirac moved up France's national election by 11 months, citing the need for a new majority with the strength and the mandate to face the difficult reforms ahead. Legislative elections, expected in March 1998, will now take place May 25, with a runoff vote June 1.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who doesn't have the option to change his country's election date, took a strong symbolic step by announcing this month that he will run for reelection in October 1998 and that European unity will be at the center of his campaign.
Even in Britain, where on paper both major parties have identical positions on European monetary unity - wait and see - Europe has taken center stage in the coming May 1 vote.
In a major foreign policy speech April 21, "New Labour" candidate Tony Blair criticized his Conservative Party opponents for a "narrow, crabbed nationalism" and called a policy of "perpetual isolation" from Europe "misguided." But a new Conservative campaign poster shows Mr. Blair as a puppet on the lap of Mr. Kohl.
The goal: a super-currency
At stake for Europe is whether the single-currency plan can weather the political costs needed to secure it.
The plan for monetary union was to have launched Europe as an economic superpower, with a single currency to rival the dollar and yen. But unemployment has remained in double digits, growth is sluggish, and much deeper budget cuts will be needed to qualify most states by 1999.
"To Europe's man in the street, monetary union is associated with hardship, giving up the post-World War II safety net and job security. For about 60 percent of Europeans, this is not acceptable," says J. Paul Horne, senior economist for Smith Barney in Paris.
"The good news for Europe is that Britain will likely come out of this election with a more Euro-reasonable government, and that Europe's leading statesman and politician [Kohl] is taking charge of German coalition politics in 1998. Chirac has taken a risky course, but it will give the French a very clear choice between getting on with monetary union or trying to get by in the old-fashioned way, which it can no longer afford."
Currently, only six of the 15 members of the European Union have public deficits below the ceiling of 3 percent of gross national product: Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Germany and France, the architects of the monetary-union plan, are currently running deficits of 3.9 percent and 4.1 percent.
Both will need deep budget cuts to make the standard, and until this week, both would have had to make them in an election year. Even now, some two-thirds of German voters are against giving up the German mark for a single European currency.
President Chirac's decision to push elections forward raises the question earlier and at a more advantageous moment for ruling conservatives. Conservatives did not want to face a campaign in the midst of social protests over a new round of budget cuts.
Corruption investigations involving key conservative leaders were also expected to come to a head about the time a 1998 campaign was getting off the ground.
But if the vote turns against Chirac, it could encourage Euroskeptics across Europe to scuttle prospects for monetary union.
Recent polls give the president's coalition a narrow edge in next month's vote. Conservatives are expected to lose 150 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly but still emerge with a 40-seat margin.
That is a far cry from the whopping 80 percent majority they now enjoy. But the new coalition is expected to be more coherent, especially on the issue of European union.
"Chirac wants to put the elections behind him, so he can take the decisions he needs to build Europe in a less charged environment. But it will be a difficult election that can be changed by the campaign. If he loses, he will have to serve out the remaining five years of his term with an opposition majority," says pollster Roland Cayroll of the Paris-based Conseils Sondages Analyses.
Estimates of those undecided or likely to change their preference in the campaign range from 40 percent to 58 percent in the three latest polls.
A 'precipitous move'
The surprise early vote caught opposition politicians off guard. "Nothing justifies this precipitous move for a vote," says Socialist leader Lionel Jospin. Mr. Jospin has pledged that one-third of his candidates in the legislative vote, will be women, most of whom will be newcomers to their districts.
Communist leader Robert Hue said the vote was a ruse to mask harsh new austerity measures to qualify for a single currency.
Another wild card in the March 25 vote is the National Front, an extreme-right party that strongly opposes European union.
In the 1995 presidential vote, National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was the leading candidate for workers and the unemployed as well as for the extreme right.
Polls say the National Front could win 16 percent of the vote, a historic high.
French voters appeared to be the only group not taken by surprise by the vote. While pundits speculated before the speech whether snap elections would be called, French voters began receiving voting cards in the mail weeks before the April 21 announcement.
"Voting cards arrive before an election. We knew something was afoot," said Franois, a newspaper vender on Paris's Left Bank.