Politicians have warned the French that voting down the EU constitution would push the EU into a period of introspection and even lead to the collapse of the union. Other observers say it's not as bad as all that.
Oui or non, the French vote will determine the EU's next steps
Whether reading newspapers, watching TV, or even just sitting in a café, it's been impossible to get away from the constitutional debate for weeks -- and rightly so, both sides agree. This Sunday's decision will play a fundamental role in the future face of the European Union.
"We will go through a great period of crisis," said former European Commission president Romano Prodi of a French constitutional rejection. "The problem will not only be a catastrophe for France, but the fall of Europe."
But most experts agree the actual likelihood of complete collapse is slim. Should the French vote against the draft, as current polls show 54 percent of them will, the decision could finish off European constitution efforts, but the union would continue its other work using the current framework.
"Yes or no, the EU will continue with its current structures," said Olaf Hahn of the Robert Bosch Foundation. "But it will have to decide the basic question of how it will continue."
However, if the "No" camp succeeds "France will find itself on the platform while the train passes us by," French President Jacques Chirac said, and observers agree that the rest of the EU would also be left waiting on the platform while Europe searches for its center.
EU business put on hold
A long period of introspection would have significant repercussions as the 25-member bloc struggles with finalizing its 2007-2013 long-term budget, attempts to convince Iran not to pursue uranium enrichment and approaches Turkish accession talks scheduled to begin in October.
Voting down the constitution in France could also signal a change from the principle of a Franco-German core, according to Martin Koopmann of the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Regardless of Sunday's outcome, work in the EU will proceed
"It would be the first time that France blocks European integration," he said. "The EU is based on the logic that Germany and France push forward together, and that logic would be reversed."
A European phase of self-absorption stemming from the world’s fourth-largest economy's "N on" to the constitution and the looming German federal elections would be more than sufficient to convince companies to put off new European investments and put a dent in the euro, which is already approaching a seven-month low against the dollar.
European economic policymakers are already struggling with weak growth, strained public finances, stalled reforms and generally rock-bottom credibility, which Daniel Gros, director of the Center for European Policy Studies, warned was likely to suffer even further in the case of a "No."
"What little credibility that might have been left will be further damaged," he told AFP.
"Yes" camp's hopes rest on undecided voters
Despite ten consecutive polls that show the naysayers ahead, the constitution's supporters have also not given up on the slim chance French voters could still approve the draft, which would give rise to a collective sigh of relief from Brussels.
Many of the French won't make up their minds until they get to the ballot box
Between 20 percent and 25 percent of France 42 million voters, who are famous for making up their mind at the last minute, admit they may still change their vote before going to the polls, according to recent surveys. In a race with the two sides separated by between six percent and eight percent, undecided voters will make all the difference.
Other treaties have also been rejected
France, however, isn't the last obstacle in the constitution's path. Three days after the French go to the polls, the Dutch will be asked their opinion and referendums will also take place in Luxembourg, Denmark, Poland, Portugal, Ireland, the Czech Republic and Britain by the end of 2005.
Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's countrymen will vote on the EU constitution June 1
Legally, it doesn’t matter if it's France or a smaller EU member state like Denmark that scuttles the constitution, since the draft must be ratified by all 25 EU member states before it can go into effect. But EU Council President Jean-Claude Juncker hopes other member states will ratify the constitution, even if the French or Dutch cast it aside.
"I find it quite extraordinary to say to other people that they can stay at home, because France has decided for the others," he said Wednesday in an interview with the Belgian daily Le Soir. "If it's 'yes' we will say, let's go on; if it's 'no' we will say, let's continue."
Rejection in a smaller country could be reversed with a second trip to the polls, as happened with in Ireland with the Nice Treaty in 2001. But that's a step French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has ruled out.
"France will express itself, it will express itself once," he told the BBC. "There will be no second round or second chance. Once she has spoken, her message is clear."