Leading Article: Forward with the Danes

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HOWEVER flawed the Maastricht treaty may be, the Danes' Yes vote in their second referendum yesterday is a huge relief - not least for John Major. Last year's No was a severe shock to the Community. In Britain it emboldened anti-EC Tories to fight a bitter rearguard action against the treaty. This helped to undermine the British presidency and created the worst open division in living memory within the Conservative Party. Across the EC it heartened sceptics, populists and nationalists. Ireland's faith in a European future remained undimmed. But the French voted for Maastricht only by the narrowest of margins, and German doubts about swapping the mark for a common currency multiplied.

In short, confidence in the EC's future as mapped out in the treaty was severely sapped. That damage was aggravated by a recession, of which Britain was the first victim but which is now hitting Germany very hard, and by painfully public divisions within the EC over the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. These made the goal of a common foreign policy look very remote, even if the more necessary.

On the positive side, to many British eyes at least, such developments strengthened the pragmatists and evolutionists within the EC at the expense of the so-called federalists. The principle of subsidiarity, enshrined at Maastricht, was fleshed out at the Edinburgh summit of December 1992, at which the Danes were granted several opt-outs from the treaty; and there were some modest steps towards greater openness. Meanwhile foreign exchange dealers had forced the pound and lira out of the exchange rate mechanism and devaluations of the peseta and escudo. With each convulsion, and with most member states forced by the recession to stray from the path of fiscal virtue, Maastricht's central goal, economic and monetary union by the end of the decade, looked increasingly unattainable.

If, after all this, the Danes had yesterday repeated their rejection with a second No, the setback to the EC would have been yet more serious than first time around. A new treaty, Son (or Daughter) of Maastricht, would have had to be negotiated, with further delays and an aggravation of anti-EC sentiment. The timetable for enlargement - talks with Sweden, Finland, Norway and Austria are under way - would have been delayed. For the three Scandinavian countries, membership would have seemed less desirable. To the countries of Eastern Europe, the EC would have looked a much less safe destination than previously. Fears that nationalism and protectionism would begin to unravel the Community's existing achievements would have been justified.

The Danish change of heart is particularly welcome at 10 Downing Street. Differences in weight apart, Danish views of the EC have much in common with the Government's. The Danes' Yes removes the last best hope of the Tory rebels. The ratification Bill's third reading should now be completed on Thursday, leaving only possible delay in the Lords. Although there remain legal challenges to the treaty in Germany, the end of ratification is in sight. Problems aplenty remain, both economic and political. But a large shadow has been removed, and forward movement again looks possible, led by a chastened European Commission and governments reminded of the need to keep in step with popular opinion.