Paris -- 1992 threatens to become the year of Europe's deconstruction. January 1993 will bring a single European market. By then there may have been a collapse of the European Community plan for monetary union and further political and security integration.
The next four weeks will be decisive. On Sept. 20, the French vote in referendum to accept or reject the Maastricht treaty on further European union. If they vote no -- and they may -- the unification program is finished.
Technically, the Danish public's rejection of the treaty earlier this year made ratification by the other 11 members irrelevant. The ratification effort has continued, however, on the assumption that the Danes could be persuaded to reconsider. A French rejection would settle the affair.
Furthermore, it will be clear within days whether the London conference on ruined Yugoslavia has served any purpose. If it proves a cynical exercise, obfuscating the political and human issues and producing no positive result, the plan for European political union in the Maastricht treaty will be discredited. The EC will have demonstrated its political incapacity.
The outlook is bad because these unforeseen developments negatively interact. Yugoslavia is a major factor in the French popular reaction against Maastricht. The public can see that the European Community's existence encouraged individual governments to do little or nothing, shifting responsibility to the Community.
The Community in turn did little because the member governments could not agree on much beyond Lord Carrington's useless peace conferences. Thus, the Community passed the buck to the United Nations. So much for a common European foreign and security policy.
The problem was not, as some claim, that a mechanism for
agreement was lacking, which Maastricht is supposed to supply in the future. There are plenty of telephones in European foreign ministries and embassies.
The problem is that the 12 Community members see things differently. Signing the Maastricht Treaty will not change that. It will make the situation worse by introducing a principle of unanimity on major decisions, which is a formula for permanent stalemate. Today, there is nothing to stop Paris or London or Bonn from taking matters into its own hands, had any a will to do so.
The French voters recognize this. It reinforces their natural reluctance to approve the surrender of sovereignty implied in the treaty on a scale still unclear. The treaty's language is legalistic and obscure, the result of many compromises. The sovereign principle is that of subsidiarity: decisions will be taken in the new community at the lowest level. The meaning of this would have to be worked out.
A few months ago, most voters in France would probably have assumed that good will and good sense would solve the problems. In the atmosphere of European impotence and vulnerability created by the Yugoslav crisis, many French are no longer willing to take on faith the Community's positive evolution.
Nor, it should be added, are many other Europeans. British skepticism about Maastricht is well known. In Germany there is much hostility to the Deutsche mark's proposed replacement by a single European currency.
Germany is where many of the two million refugees created by Serbian and Croatian aggression long to go. Yet there is already a social upheaval over the economic refugees already there, pleading political persecution. The city of Rostock has seen rioting and burning night after night. And while Romanians and Vietnamese can eventually be sent home as unqualified for political refuge, there is no mistaking the persecution of the people driven from Yugoslavia.
French internal politics is also a factor. President Francois Mitterrand unwisely chose to ask for this referendum, thinking it an easy winner and easily interpreted as an endorsement for him. The opposition indeed has divided, but the latest polls show the "no" vote marginally ahead, with the most important motive hostility to Mr. Mitterrand.
His supporters and conservative defenders of Europe are united in trying to persuade voters to save their opinions of his government until next year's legislative election.
But if they vote "no," the shock for Europe will be profound. France and Germany made Europe. If France blocks this new program, the confidence of Europeans in the future of the Community will be devastated.
In the spring, all this would have seemed implausible. One could have confidently said the French would never vote "no." In the end, perhaps they will not. France has invested more in Europe's creation than any country except Germany.
But whatever the vote, Europe knows a grave crisis. Successful aggression in Yugoslavia is the cause of it.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.