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EU: Danish Hurdle Could Delay Expansion Eastward

Copenhagen, 18 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Ove Fich, a leading Danish Social Democrat, has warned his party and his countrymen that proposals likely to emerge from the European Union's current Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) will involve basic reforms in the 15-nation group's institutions. He said that the results of the IGC, expected to conclude its work within two months, could be so important that a Danish referendum will have to be called to approve the draft treaty the conference is expected to produce.

Fich's remarks this week were the latest in a series of similar comments, from the Danish Left, Right and Center, that point to the increasing possibility of one or even two separate national referenda on the EU, probably to be held this autumn and/or next spring. Danish law dictates that any changes in binding EU polices be submitted to public approval in referenda.

The Social Democrats of Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, who have run a minority coalition government since 1992, are unlikely to sign any new EU treaty if they believe it infringes upon national sovereignty. And in Denmark "national sovereignty" is given a flexible interpretation that includes everything from changes in the educational system to altering taxation, telecommunications, foreign and defense policies.

The possibility of new Danish referenda on an IGC draft treaty is not only an internal Danish problem. A Danish popular vote or votes on basic reforms in EU institutions could have direct consequences on the Union's planned enlargement to the East. All EU member states must ratify the treaty before it can go into effect.

Should Danish voters reject an IGC treaty about the Union's future institutional architecture, the 10 candidate states from Central and Eastern Europe are sure to raise their collective eyebrows. A Danish "No" will mean that they cannot become EU members on schedule -- whatever that schedule turns out to be -- but will have to wait for Danish voters to change their views on the matter.

That is exactly what occurred in 1992, when Danish voters first rejected by a narrow margin the so-called Maastricht Treaty that created the Union out of the former European Community. Several months later, after an extensive government education campaign, Danes voted again on the issue in early 1993 -- and this time approved Maastricht by a similarly slim margin.

Most Danish politicians, and a majority of voters, favor a rapid EU expansion to the East. Most political parties support greater EU internal integration. But popular sentiment about the Union's further integration is clearly divided -- just as it was in 1992 and 1993.

The likelihood of further referenda in Denmark on the EU has increased with the apparent strong pressure currently being exercised by the Netherlands, which holds the Union's revolving presidency, to wind up the IGC by the end of June. The Danish Government is determined to submit to referenda any clause in an IGC draft treaty that seems to violate Danish law.

Paragraph 20 of the Danish Constitution affirms the nation's sovereignty to make decisions about issues that are of "internal interest." But a clause in the Maastricht Treaty stipulates member states can at all times include "new areas for cooperation and unification." And the federalist-minded Dutch want supranational legislation in what traditionally in Denmark have been seen as sensitive areas -- such as police cooperation, immigration and foreign policy. It is highly unlikely these will go down well with Danish voters who are already wary of too much Euro-bureaucracy and of the accumulation of power in the hands of non-elected officials at EU headquarters in Brussels.

If most major Danish political parties favor full EU membership for Copenhagen and the Union's rapid enlargement Eastward, debate over the Maastricht Treaty debate here gave birth to a number of smaller parties and grass-roots movements based largely on opposition to the Union. Typically, these small groups are either on the far Left or far Right of the political spectrum. Politically, they do not object to the free-trade objectives of the original European Common Market. But none of them would like to yield national power to supranational institutions.

One main argument made by Danish "Euro-skeptics" is that an over-centralized EU will become a "Fortress Europe" with Western countries happily living on the inside while poorer Eastern candidates will have to wait a long while for membership. It is unlikely that this argument will change official pro-European policies in Copenhagen. But it could cause domestic political friction and eventually force a new referendum on the issue. And Danish referenda always take considerable time -- as long as six to nine months -- to organize and conduct.