Denmark's euro battle ends in a fog of words

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The Independent Online

Denmark's Euro referendum campaign ended in a fresh controversy yesterday as polls predicted the closest of results and politicians came under fire over the quality of the debate.

Denmark's Euro referendum campaign ended in a fresh controversy yesterday as polls predicted the closest of results and politicians came under fire over the quality of the debate.

Supporters of the single currency had a last-minute scare when a Swiss weekly newspaper quoted the president of the European Central Bank, Wim Duisenberg, as saying euro membership could put pressure on Denmark's popular and generous pension system.

A denial from the bank was backed by the pro-euro Danish Prime Minister, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, who said Mr Duisenberg "had not been quoted, he has not made an interview and this is a mistake".

Later, the HandelsZeitung's editor-in-chief conceded that the comments attributed to the central bank president were "incomplete", excerpts of an interview given to Danish journalists on 13 September.

With opinion polls split on the outcome of today's vote, the row produced a jittery finale for Mr Rasmussen who was cautious in predicting victory. "I think we have a chance but I think it will be close," he said. "I will continue to campaign until midnight."

Yesterday's surveys showed opponents of the euro leading in three opinion polls with supporters of the single currency ahead in two, and one predicting a tie.

The eve-of-polling confusion over pensions is typical of adiffuse and contradictory debate which has left the outcome in the hands of undecided voters, many of whom will make their minds up today.

One of those is 71-year-old Erik Jacobsen, a retired worker at the Tuborg beer plant, who met Mr Rasmussen yesterday as he campaigned in the heart of Copenhagen.

Mr Jacobsen had watched a televised debate among leading politicians on Tuesday night and was unimpressed. "It was terrible to see the mud-slinging," he said and recounted worries about the safety of his pension and his fears that Denmark's small economy would be overshadowed by France and Germany.

Danes are famously well-informed and, although Tuesday's televised debate featured 11 speakers and lasted two and a half hours, 10 per cent of the five million population may have tuned in.

Some academics believe the electorate has been let down by the lack of informed debate on the implications of euro membership. Instead, the opposing sides have clashed over Europe's sanctions against Austria, the fate of the Danish pension system and even a possible EU threat to the Danish monarchy.

Both sides span political fault lines and the "no" campaign stretches from socialists to the far-right anti-immigration Danish People's Party which backs medical castration for serious sex offenders.

Lykke Friis, research fellow at the Danish Institute of International Affairs, says: "We are frustrated because the debate has been a repetition of former campaigns we have had, 'Will this lead to more union or less union and whether Denmark should be a part of the EU, rather than what it will mean for the country to participate in the euro'."

The central issue has been the future of the welfare state but here the two sides have generated more confusion than enlightenment. While the "no" side has argued that EU pressure to harmonise fiscal policy poses a threat, advocates of the single currency say that staying out would damage the economy, thereby undermining public services.

Another academic believes the campaign has been inward-looking because of broader Danish doubts about participation in the EU. Hans Mouritzen, senior research fellow at the Danish Institute of Foreign Affairs, said: "We have a kind of superiority complex in that we believe we have the world's best beer, the world's best sausages, and the world's best amusement park at the Tivoli Gardens.

"At the same time we have an inferiority complex in that we are small and weak. If Danish politicians tell the people they can have influence in Europe, the public tends not to believe it."

Today's result, in other words, will say more about Denmark's doubts about its place in the world than the merits of Europe's single currency.