Byline: Andrew Borowiec, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
PARIS - This is a year of crucial decisions, when the European Union can close ranks and look forward to further expansion or see its precarious unity shattered.
France, because of its size and role in the EU, holds the key to the future with a referendum on the proposed European Constitution - a lengthy document, read by few, comprising 448 articles, that one French pundit described as "badly put together."
A number of countries - starting with Spain on Feb. 20 - will hold referendums on the constitution, while others are expected to let their legislatures vote for them. The parliament of Slovenia approved the constitution by a large majority last Tuesday. The most vocal critics of the proposed charter are in France, the Netherlands, and Britain.
The French referendum on the charter will most likely be held in June. While the government and a number of politicians urge acceptance, opinion polls indicate a strong rejectionist current, largely because of domestic problems and opposition to opening the EU gate to Turkey.
France's rejection of the constitution would send a strong signal to Britain and the Netherlands, which vote later.
In France, the issue has degenerated into a simmering political debate in which some regard the referendum as a vote of approval or disapproval on the record of conservative President Jacques Chirac.
To save the constitution, Mr. Chirac is trying to separate its approval from the decision on Turkey's European future - by promising another referendum in 2015 dealing only with whether or not to invite Turkey into the European Union.
His approach appears to have further muddled the issues, triggering a barrage of often-confusing - and, frequently, later-denied - statements across the entire political spectrum.
The increasingly acerbic debate is taking place against a background of disagreements between Mr. Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, his economy minister and leader of the dominant Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). Mr. Sarkozy does not hide his presidential ambitions, and his party is facing a growing split.
Some analysts describe the situation as able to spark a major political crisis in France, and consequently in the European Union itself.
"The government does not shine, either by its performance or its results. The new generation feels it can manage without it," said Stephane Denis, a political commentator.
"The referendum provides an opportunity to prove that Europe is ill-assorted, does not want the Turks, and that Chirac is boring," Mr. Denis added.
The French president's call for a "oui" vote is in keeping with the idea that the constitution provides for the European Union's further expansion. Last year, the European Union agreed to start accession talks with Turkey, a mostly-Muslim nation astride Europe and Asia that finally got the right to "ring the bell" of what until then had been a club for Christians (or agnostics).
Mr. Chirac's proposal to hold a separate referendum on Turkey's accession 10 years down the road has become a delicate issue. A series of weeklong strikes last month was interpreted by many as a sign of growing opposition to the government's economic policies, which could have an impact on its recommendation to approve the constitution.
Last year, French voters gave a major warning signal to the conservative government in regional and European Parliament elections.
At this time, there are no clear-cut indications of how the French electorate, which has proved fickle in the past, will treat the constitutional issue linked to Europe's unity and aspirations.
Critics say the proposed constitution is the result of a compromise, and thus satisfies only a few. There is considerable fear of the European Union's greater expansion, which many consider likely to dilute its efficiency and its influence in the world. …