THE far-ranging treaty on European political and economic union agreed to last December in the little Dutch town of Maastricht was seen by Europe's elite as a last chance to seal and preserve the cold-war-era dream of a neat, stable, and steadily flourishing European Community. The agreement goes well past monetary union; it means Brussels increasingly takes authority over security and even some cultural decisions.
The 12 EC nations hoped to slip the Maastricht treaty past their populations before too many messy questions and fears arose about the identity and structure of a new Europe in a post-cold-war world: the role of a reunified Germany; the status of both poor East European nations and rich EC suitors like Austria, Sweden, and Finland; newly awakened regional passions; and security, as NATO wanes.
But they have not been able to slip it past. As it became clear to ordinary Europeans how far Maastricht went - more like a full-blown marriage than a simple treaty - people balked. First, in Denmark. Then, via polls, in Britain and Germany.
The French referendum on Sept. 20 is crucial in keeping Maastricht alive. The extent of EC concern for union is seen in the German Bundesbank decision this week to lower interest rates, a major policy shift. That act shows the French that the significant economic force on the continent will bend to political pressure for the sake of Europe. (The decision opens Bonn to internal attack, especially from the growing anti-Europeanist right, which will parade it as an example of foreign meddling).
Yet whether the French vote oui or non, the messy questions and fears of a new Europe still need to be answered and resolved. The treaty itself is still vague. How much authority will Brussels take? Under what terms?
French moderates ask: Does one accept Maastricht now, or wait for a more perfect union treaty? Waiting, in a time of uncertainty and recession, may be expensive and painful. It could permanently derail union, though such fears may be exaggerated.
If the French vote yes, there are still plenty of ways to delay the treaty for several years and even alter it. How Denmark will be assuaged is still an open question. EC rules require unanimity.
We hope the French vote affirmatively, though it seems healthy that so many questions have arisen about the treaty. Europeans have had their decisions made for them throughout history by an elite. That should not continue, even if for a good cause. If European union is to be more than economic, it must address local concerns through participatory democracy.