Lone Theils: This is not a plot to end British civilisation

How do you explain something that is as incomprehensible as the new EU constitution?

It seems as if the whole of the EU has decided to go on a family car holiday: Germany in the driver's seat, France sitting up front reading the map, while Britain and Denmark are the kids sulking in the back, ruining it for every one with their refusal to enjoy the ride.

The idea of forging a closer-knit Europe seems to be equally unpalatable to large parts of the Danish and British public. How do you explain something that is in essence as incomprehensible and unappealing to the general public as the new EU constitution? It will be an immense task for British and Danish politicians to sell yet another modernisation of the European Union to their sceptical electorates.

But this time it is the important one, a decision that will decide how the EU will function in the future. Should it have a president? Should the 25 very different countries have a common foreign policy? How much power should be given to the European Court and how much should be left to national parliaments? How do you go about explaining that to a public that either does not want to know or simply could not care less about what it sees as the inner mechanics of a Brussels bureaucracy?

One option is of course to simplify the issue as has happened in the British debate. It all comes down to whether you use the "f-word" or not, they say. "F" is for federal and the word was removed from the draft constitution on the request of Tony Blair. All mention of a United Europe was taken out of the text that Valéry Giscard d'Estaing presented yesterday but, unfortunately for the spin doctors, something does not go away simply because you refuse to call it by a certain name.

A lot of Europhiles in the UK will blame the bad press that the EU continues to get in the papers. And it is indeed very bad. In the world of Britain's Eurosceptic press, the EU always seems to be taking money from the hard-working British people who just want to be left alone. "Pints" and "yards" and other fine British traditions seem to be under constant attack from the bureaucrats in what is stubbornly referred to as "Europe" (as if Britain were not actually a member). Every so often a story comes up in the press to make the bureaucrats in Brussels look silly. There was the story of the EU trying to regulate the bend in bananas and the story of the island that was not an island according to EU standards. It goes without saying that often these stories are simply not true.

The European Commission's press office in London spends a lot of time trying to set the record straight on such stories. But the entertainment value of what the EU is really about doesn't grab the attention now that Big Brother is back on TV. How can M. Giscard compete with the frolics of Anouska?

The interesting thing is that in Denmark, unlike in Britain, the main national papers are all in favour of the EU. The editorials talk about how the EU is the future for Denmark and how we should join the euro. They have done for years. During the last set of referendums, the papers worked hard to swing the voters to a "yes" vote. They all urged Danish voters to embrace the EU, save one paper, which had two editorials, one for and one against. Nevertheless more than half of the stubborn population refused to do so and the results have been "no". Twice.

Yesterday, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish Prime Minister, confirmed that the proposals for an EU constitution would mean that the Danes would yet again have to go to the ballot boxes. He follows a long Danish tradition of putting the EU to a referendum. But what worries him is whether the Danes will follow an equally long tradition of saying "no".

So worried is the government, in fact, that it is pondering how to time a referendum with the national elections due in 2005. Does that sound familiar? So far the British government has no plans for a referendum on the EU constitution, but there is no doubt that the euro vote, when and if it comes, will have a bearing on the coming elections in the UK as well.

There is always a danger in asking populations what they think about the EU. There is a tendency for people to just say "no" when they do not fully understand the implications of their vote. It happened when Ireland rejected the Nice treaty the first time round.

So the British and Danish governments both have a huge task in front of them. They must convince people that the EU is not just about bent bananas. Securing the future of a union of 25 nations is not a plot to bring about the end of civilisation as the British know it. If that does not happen, it looks as if we are all in for a long tedious drive, from the back seat and with a severely restricted view.

The author is UK correspondent for the Danish newspaper 'Berlingske Tidende'

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