Leading Article: That Danish factor

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The Independent Online
TO SOLVE the 'Danish problem', a seasoned observer of the European Community remarked recently, requires first lawyers, then diplomats, and finally psychologists. The problem was created by the Danish rejection of the Maastricht treaty in June. It is the difficult task of the current British presidency of the EC to produce solutions that will satisfy not only the Danes, who want to opt out of much of the treaty, but other member states bent on maintaining its integrity.

Lawyers and diplomats have toiled in Whitehall and Brussels to produce draft decisions and declarations that might meet the bill - only to be told by the Danes that they do not go far enough, and by other member states that they go too far. At a meeting of EC foreign ministers in Brussels yesterday, the British agreed to reconsider their proposals. Time is short: the issue is likely to make or break the EC summit meeting opening in Edinburgh on Friday. There the Danish government will have to decide whether what it is being offered can be sold back home.

That is when the psychologists may be needed. The minority Danish government itself helped to negotiate the Maastricht treaty - including a special clause, comparable to Britain's, enabling the Danes to opt out of monetary union. Naturally, it campaigned for a Yes vote in the referendum. After receiving the rebuff of a narrow No majority, it had to consult opposition parties on what changes might be needed to reverse that decision in a second referendum. The opposition's demands formed the basis of the Danish paper eventually put to the British presidency as the basis for its draft solutions. So in Edinburgh the Danish Prime Minister, Poul Schluter, will in effect be negotiating on behalf of the opposition - and not even the main opposition party, the Social Democrats, who backed the treaty when it was being negotiated but were shaken when many of their supporters voted No. On this issue the running is being made by the smaller and more leftish Socialist People's Party: a case of one short tail wagging two large dogs.

Going to Edinburgh with no clear mandate, the Danish government will aim to secure the best available deal. If what it is offered appears satisfactory, it may even call a general election as well as a second referendum. There is, however, something bizarre in the spectacle of a government attempting to secure exemptions from almost every important provision of a treaty that it helped to negotiate to its own satisfaction. Yet if the Danes cannot be persuaded to say Yes to Maastricht in a second referendum, the treaty cannot come into effect; and if so many exceptions are made for them, there may be pressure for similar treatment not just from the anti-Maastricht camp in Britain but from other EC states and applicants such as Norway, Sweden and Finland.

The French, Germans and Benelux countries are adamant that there can be no Europe a la carte. It is precisely towards that oft-forecast development that events are pushing the EC - probably to its long-term gain. More important than the Maastricht treaty, by any rational yardstick, are the political and economic needs of the new democracies in Eastern Europe. They can best be met by a Europe evolving in parallel at several different speeds. Edinburgh may prove to be a landmark on that journey.