Danish poll haunted by fear of immigration

Growing xenophobia will make many Danes vote against greater integratio n with Europe, writes Katherine Butler in Copenhagen
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The Independent Online
"A MELTING pot," says Karen, a young woman who looks like the Danish supermodel Helena Christensen. Ringing up purchases in one of the stores on Ostergade, Copenhagen's smartest shopping street she wrinkles her nose in disapproval. "That's what Europe is turning into. I don't want us to be part of that. It might be selfish but it's the Danish way."

The Danish way is threatening to plunge the rest of Europe into crisis again, as voters go to the polls today to decide if they can stomach further integration with Europe, and the exposure to foreign ways they fear will come in its wake.

Denmark's five million citizens live in a highly regulated state where it is common to pay 60 per cent income tax and parents must name their children from an approved list. Yet most Danes share Soren Jensen's view of the lavish welfare system their taxes sustain. "This is a paradise," says the 40-year-old electrician who enjoys six weeks' paid holiday.

But the social model Danes are so proud of has exposed its uglier side in the run-up to today's vote on the Amsterdam treaty. Denmark's famed altruism towards foreign immigrants has been exposed as a sham as many admit openly they only want to share their utopia with other Danes.

"Welcome to 40 million Poles," was one of the "No" campaign's posters. It had to be withdrawn after protests, though not before it made an impact on voters.

The xenophobic anti-immigration platform of the far right Danish Peoples' Party, led by a housewife, Pia Kjaersgaard, has driven the campaign by raising fears that the open-borders provisions written into the Treaty will lead to a flood of refugees.

The phobia is generated by tiny numbers. Only four per cent of the population is non-Dane, and half the outsiders are Nordic engineers, Irish bartenders or others of EU stock. A black face in Copenhagen is a rare sight. Most Danes have no contact with immigrants.

But it is precisely the homogeneity of Danish society and the belief that their system is under threat which is feeding unparalleled angst about the nation's borders.

Left-wing opponents of the Amsterdam treaty have distanced themselves from this xenophobia, but left and right have found common ground on the threat Europe poses to the 500-year-old democracy Danes claim is being smothered as the EU nudges towards political union.

"Here you can knock on any door and get access to the decision makers. You can ring the Prime Minister at home," says Lars Kaaber, of the catch- all anti-treaty June Movement. "If you've been to Brussels you know how thick the doors there are. Our anxiety is about the way we perceive ourselves and our democracy."

If they approve the treaty - forecasts yesterday suggested the "Yes" lead had narrowed to six per cent - the campaign has highlighted the cultural rift which will keep the EU dilemma raging in Denmark.

When a Danish woman was arrested in New York for leaving her baby outside a restaurant while she ate lunch, Americans applauded the police. But in Danish society babies, like everyone else, are safe, cushioned by order, regulation and the twin national philosophies of `jante' which bans anyone from even thinking they are superior to anyone else, and `bygge' a concept meaning neighbourly.

"Even the bikers have observed a truce for a year," says one diplomat referring to the motorcycle gang wars which have intermittently led to violent killings.

Observers believe Danish euro-scepticism is now more virulent than its British cousin. Feeling they have been tricked into a political project which was sold to them as an economic venture, ordinary people are obsessed with the details of the treaty, as if they were a matter of urgent personal concern.

One woman working in a newsagent said she was worried whether Denmark's opt-outs from the Maastricht Treaty were properly protected in the updated version.

Jorgen Schoubye, 33, a taxi driver said he was voting "Yes" but only after subjecting the document to intense scrutiny. "I called up the information office at the parliament for a copy of the treaty. They sent me a whole package which I have been reading, although it is very legalistic".

Jan Debel runs his own transport business and will be voting "No". "I'm not saying we should leave the EU but we must pull the brake, we must force them to say where they are leading us", he says.