Voters' Europhobia threatens to topple Denmark's leader

The economy is booming, unemployment has been nearly halved in the past five years, yet voters feeling insecure about their future in Europe are threatening to turf their wooden Prime Minister out of office.

Sounds familiar? Polls ahead of today's election in Denmark say Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen is heading for defeat. If he is ousted after a campaign in which the country's semi-detached status in the EU was an important issue, the cause of European integration may suffer a blow.

Mr Rasmussen persuaded Danes in 1993 to approve a watered-down version of the Maastricht Treaty, following the debacle of the first referendum. Now opt-outs won by Denmark, including the right to shun monetary union, are being undermined by his opponent. Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, leader of the Liberal Party and the choice of a putative right-of-centre coalition, wants to opt back in. The polls predict a victory for his alliance.

Eurocrats should not rejoice yet, as the decision over the country's place in Europe rests with the electorate, who will return to the ballot box in two months to ratify Maastricht II: the Amsterdam Treaty. Instead of bringing Copenhagen closer to Brussels, as Mr Ellemann-Jensen hopes, May's referendum could wreak havoc in Europe once again. The Treaty must be ratified by all 15 member-states. Without a Danish "yes", it is back to the drawing board.

The irony of the situation is that there was no need to make Europe an issue in the election. Voters found Mr Rasmussen's mild Euro-scepticism reassuring, and were almost certain to sign for the new treaty. But in the event of his demise, fears about a European super-state may provoke a stampede into the rejectionist camp.