Denmark defends its EC role

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

DENMARK defended itself yesterday against accusations that it was 'changing horses in mid-stream' and that its management of the European Community was 'disastrous'.

Appearing before the European Parliament for the first and last time in this Danish presidency, the acting Foreign Minister, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, said 'Denmark can deliver' on the ambitious programme it has sketched out for the next six months.

Leo Tindemans, head of the European People's Party, the parliament's conservative faction, said the fall of Poul Schluter's government two weeks into Denmark's presidency was 'the most inauspicious start to a presidency I have ever witnessed'. Mr Ellemann-Jensen assured him the programme had been approved by all parties in the Danish parliament.

It is not yet clear who his successor might be. In the week since a political scandal brought down the government, Mr Ellemann-Jensen has strived to stay in office. But the Social Democrats, who will head the next administration, have refused to include Mr Ellemann-Jensen's Liberal Party in any new coalition. This looks increasingly likely to include several of the small centrist parties, including the Radical Liberals, traditionally the king-makers of the Danish system. As a reward for their support, the party's European spokesman, Helveg Petersen, is tipped to get the job of foreign minister.

The toughest task Copenhagen has set itself is to try to tackle unemployment and sluggish growth. Figures yesterday showed EC unemployment rose to 9.9 per cent in November, against 9.1 per cent in November 1991. At the same time, the presidency has put environmental protection high on its agenda. Some of the suggestions, such as a carbon-emissions tax, are costly.

Negotiations on enlargement of the Community are to begin formally on 1 February, although the first step to membership - creation of a European Economic Area for free trade - is still causing problems. The EC has to look eastwards at ways of bringing the ex-Communist states further into Western Europe's political framework while dealing with the civil war in Yugoslavia.

Any solution risks splitting the Community if it greatly exacerbates the refugee problem, which has already caused a re-think of welfare strategies in several member states. The Gatt talks are still stalled and the Middle East peace process grinds on.

All this occurs at a time when the EC is uncertain of its future. Mr Ellemann-Jensen confirmed there should be a second referendum on the Maastricht treaty in April or May and that most Danes would vote 'yes'. But no one dares accept this, or Britain's ratification later, as a fait accompli.

Moreover, policy must be conducted in the new spirit of 'openness and transparency'. The first obvious example will, the Danes promised, be the televising of the first formal meeting of EC foreign ministers next month. 'I'll probably be watching all this from a comfy chair at home,' a wistful Mr Ellemann-Jensen said yesterday. 'I must say it gives a new meaning to the concept of openness. Just like every EC citizen, instead of wondering what my successor is doing, I shall be able to see for myself.'