Women's votes may tip Danish poll against euro

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The Independent Online

When a bus carrying euro-enthusiasts pulls out of the Danish city of Alborg next weekend, one thing will mark it out from the average political campaign. Of the 20 people on board only one will be male - and he will be the driver.

When a bus carrying euro-enthusiasts pulls out of the Danish city of Alborg next weekend, one thing will mark it out from the average political campaign. Of the 20 people on board only one will be male - and he will be the driver.

Polls published yesterday showed that the 28 September referendum on Denmark's membership of the euro was on a knife-edge. And with all the surveys also showing that it is female voters who are most resistant to the euro, the Yes campaign is concentrating on calming their fears.

A poll in yesterday's Berlingske Tidende newspaper suggested the result could be swung by a few thousand votes; it put the No side three points ahead, at 44 to 41 per cent.

So, under the slogan "Women's votes will decide", a busload of pro-euro female Social Democrats will this week try to bridge the sex gap by canvassing supermarkets, distributing leaflets in nurses' colleges and staging something billed as a "debate with bingo". Things tend to be done differently in Denmark, a country that has a history of Euro-scepticism, which rejected the Maastricht treaty at the first time of asking in 1992.

This time the stakes are high, because the referendum result will have an impact on the debate in the two other European Union countries outside the single currency, Britain and Sweden.

The golden rule in politics is never to call a referendum unless you know the likely result and, when the Social Democratic Prime Minister, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, announced the contest, the pro-euro campaigners were well ahead in the polls.

That lead evaporated, then turned into a small deficit in the early summer, and is only now returning to level pegging.

Danish farmers and fishermen were once staunch supporters of the EU, while the cities were hotbeds of Euro-scepticism. That trend has been reversed, with opposition to the single currency strongest in rural areas of Jutland, and solid support for the project among the political establishment, unions and the business community.

The anti-euro campaigners, an alliance that extends from nationalists on the right to socialists on the left, has exploited issues ranging from the storm over EU member countries' political sanctions against Austria to claims that official money is funding the Yes campaign.

Charlotte Antonsen, an MP for the pro-euro Liberal Party, argues that women have been more receptive to the anti-euro message because they are disproportionately represented in the public sector, among "teachers, nurses, daycare staff - in big groups where you have no contact with foreign companies".

Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a Social Democrat MEP who will be part of the all-woman bus tour, puts it a different way. "The antis have argued that more Europe means less welfare state - and it is women who are more dependent on benefits like child care and day care for the elderly," she said.

Whatever the reason, one Gallup poll showed that 48 per cent of women were against the euro compared with 43 per cent of men.

The ultra-nationalist Danish People's Party, led by Pia Kjaersgaard, has made sovereignty the central issue, even arguing that the euro represents a threat to the Danish monarchy. Not surprisingly for a party that backs repatriation of immigrants and medical castration of serious sex offenders, its literature pulls few punches: "Shall we send Denmark's gold to Frankfurt?"; "Will Danes decide in Denmark?" scream the headlines.

More broadly, the anti-euro parties have presented the single currency as a threat to the country's comfortable way of life and its generous social security system. Despite the advantage that the broad platform has given them, the No campaign has started to suffer from the contradictions that are inevitable in a left-right alliance.

For example, the Socialist People's Party, presents the euro as a capitalist straitjacket that precludes devaluation, and the Danish People's Party has had to tone down its usual references to the EU as a "socialist club".

Pro-euro campaigners have pilloried this marriage of convenience in a spoof film poster depicting the male leader of the Socialist People's Party and the female leader of the Danish People's Party embracing. The caption reads: "Sleeping with the Enemy: An important referendum. A cynical woman. A man under pressure. In a dangerous alliance."

Meanwhile, the female Yes campaigners will be touring rural Jutland with their leaflets and bingo debates in the hope that their number will finally come up.