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EC relieved as Copenhagen changes guard

DENMARK'S new government, which took office in Copenhagen yesterday, brought cheer to capitals throughout Europe, where anxiety over the fate of the Maastricht treaty is uppermost in the minds of politicians.

The predominantly Social Democratic coalition government which has taken over is expected to have a much easier time securing a 'yes' vote in the second referendum on Maastricht, because the protest factor, that saw almost 60 per cent of Social Democrat supporters rejecting the treaty in June, will be absent when Danes go to the ballot-box this spring.

Seven out of Denmark's eight political parties back the deal struck at Edinburgh in December, giving the country exemptions on monetary union, common defence policy, EC home affairs, justice and common citizenship. With the Social Democrats leading the government and committed to campaign aggressively for Maastricht, expectations are rising that the fitful progress of European union will be given another boost when the referendum takes place at the end of April.

The coalition, led by the Prime Minister, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, 49, has a majority in the Folketing for the first time in 11 years. With eyes now on Denmark's presidency of the Community, there was much relief yesterday at the appointment of Niels Helveg Petersen as Foreign Minister.

An influential figure in the tiny Radical Party, he is a well-known enthusiast for the Community, who served as chef de cabinet to the Agriculture Commissioner in the early 1980s.

Danish foreign policy is governed by the Folketing's powerful EC committee, where a big preoccupation at the moment is heading off the isolationist tendencies of the Clinton administration. The Danes have no interest in seeing the EC take over defence policy and having the US pull out of its commitments to defend Europe. Thus, while there were rumblings of displeasure in Paris and elsewhere as cruise missiles rained down on targets in Iraq, the Danish approach was to back up the US all the way.

In his swansong speech to the European Parliament last week, the former Danish foreign minister, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen said that one of the presidency's chief tasks is the 'strengthening and intensification of transatlantic relations'. Significantly, that speech was cleared by the Folketing committee first and the only change in policy as the Rasmussen government takes over will be of 'style rather than substance', in the words of one senior official.

The government is determined to press ahead with negotiations on the enlargement of the EC to include Austria, Sweden and Finland, which begin on 1 February and with Norway soon afterwards. Copenhagen is also anxious to hasten integration of the east with the Community and is calling for 'massive input' by the EC into Central and Eastern Europe.

'The western part of Europe will be hard put to maintain its present economic level or the stability it has achieved, if chaos spreads in the eastern part of Europe and the flows of refugees from civil wars grows into migrations,' Mr Ellemann-Jensen said, reflecting the consensus Danish view. But some changes can be expected from Mr Rasmussen on employment and environment policy, and the Conservative government's advocacy of free markets will be one of the first victims.