The fight goes to Copenhagen

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COPENHAGEN - Sympathy for the underdog is, no doubt, an immature and dangerous emotion. But you would need the soul of an apparatchik not to feel warmly towards the exhausted amateurs of the Danish June Movement as they battle for a No vote in next week's Maastricht referendum. Desperately short of money; facing the hostility of virtually all the parties and the press, and of business and the unions too. Demonised by the Mercedes-driving classes throughout Europe. And still they've got the establishment running scared for a second time.

In their, shabby, crowded offices near the Christiansborg Palace, the atmosphere is more like an unfashionable environmental group or failed left-wing party than a movement that could derail all current plans for European Union. They are still lagging in the polls, but the turnout may be low and it isn't over yet. 'Last year, we fought alone: we didn't hear an echo from anywhere else,' says a June Movement leader, Lars Bredo Rahbek. 'Since then, it seems that Europe is split 50-50.'

A short walk away and a few hours later, senior ministers of the ruling Social Democratic Party met for a private discussion about the progress of the Yes campaign. They were far from bullish, despite their poll lead. There were three arguments that the June Movement seemed to be winning: that Denmark's generous welfare state would trickle away in 'cohesion' payments to poor Mediterranean countries: that the Danish opt- outs won at Edinburgh were empty; and that a No vote would mean a continuation of life as before.

Two other factors have helped the No campaign. Martin Bangemann, the blundering German EC Commissioner for Industry,, has mused aloud that people would be surprised how much Brussels can do under the Maastricht treaty, adding to Danish fears than a federalist masterplan will be unrolled the minute they sign. Second, the former Danish foreign minister, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, still the country's most prominent politician, suggested that pro-Nato Denmark should eventually join a European defence system. Whether these gaffes outweigh the vague but real fear of Denmark being left out in the cold if it rejects Maastricht remains to be seen.

So what does this domestic strife among the Vikings matter to us? It is primarily their affair, of course; but it is our business too. At the simplest level, there is the way the Danish referendum has attracted British politicians and propagandists, particularly from the anti-Maastricht camp, from the editors of the Times and Sunday Telegraph to the financier Sir James Goldsmith, who has funded full-page No advertisements in the pro-Yes Danish papers. Yesterday, Lord Tebbit was in town - but so too was Giles Radice,, the leading Labour Europhile, warning Danes that Lord Tebbit was really here in pursuit of obscure British vendettas of his own.

The solidarity, or lack of it, of British ministers makes front-page news in the Danish press: if we say No, will they stick by us, or not? Privately, John Major has told Tory MPs he hopes the British anti-Maastricht rebels keep taking the fight to Copenhagen, as the best way to ensure a resounding Yes vote.

If, however, the Danes vote No, the impact on British politics will make our involvement in their referendum look trivial. On day one, it might seem good news for Mr Major; the immediate casus belli in the Tory civil war would have been swept away. On day two, however, European Community politics would be in turmoil. France, Germany and Benelux might go for a fast track inner-core Union. Britain and Denmark would be trying desperately to stop them. For Britain, the eventual choice of begging late entry to a federal Europe we didn't design and don't like, would be the heads-we-lose, tails-we're-sunk option. It could destroy the Tories as the natural governing party for a generation, among its lesser effects. Mr Major would be left trying to navigate a Maastricht-like passage between federalism and nationalism. But there would be no comfortable return to a status quo ante.

It is unsurprising, then, that Mr Major is praying for a Danish Yes. But here comes the crux of the problem, our deeper entanglement with them, and the reason even 'good Europeans' should listen to the Danish June Movement carefully - whichever way Denmark votes next week. For the best of these people are far from being simple nationalists or British-style parliamentary romantics.

According to Henrik Overgaard Nielsen, a large and amiable dentist and another No leader, they want an outward-looking EC, a Europe a la carte, in which they can keep Nato as their defence option and co-operate with other Baltic countries on, for instance, the environment. They are worried that 'ever closer union' is turning opinion in Norway, Sweden and Finland sharply away from the idea of EC membership. They want to be open to eastern Europe. They want to be able to exercise national opt-outs, as pioneered by Britain.

Some June Movementers call it a Europe of separate rooms. The latest phrase is a 'Europe of Olympic rings'. But whatever image you choose, it sounds pretty similar to the Europe that a certain Mr Major of Downing Street, England, says he wants, too. Some of the Danish No campaigners are, no doubt, basically anti-European, but others can only be described as good Europeans.

The struggle to resolve Europe's political identity will go on whether or not Maastricht is finally ratified. That treaty was a messy compromise between federalist and non-federalist visions. That is why it is so horribly complicated. But it is also why those who see it as a sinister federalist plot are wrong: they forget that political will matters more than legalisms, and the will for simple federalism is ebbing. The big question is whether it is possible to build a Europe in which the decent, democratic underdogs of Denmark - and of many other countries too - will feel happy.

That is the question for us all between now and 1996, when Europe's next treaty-making conference is scheduled. If Maastricht collapses, time will be even shorter. That three- year window will close and we will face the same question immediately - but in an atmosphere of recrimination and crisis that will make a top- down federalist reaction more likely.

That would be disastrous for the political system throughout Europe. One of the most striking things about the Danish campaign is the split between the voters and the party leaderships: the Socialist People's Party is recommending a Yes, but one poll suggests that 86 per cent of its supporters will vote No. Last year 67 per cent of the supporters of the pro- Maastricht Social Democrats voted No. Even now, when that party is in government, 42 per cent of its voters refuse to follow it into the Yes lobby.

A Danish phenomenon? Well, the French referendum suggests otherwise. So do the German polls. So do the British polls: had we had a referendum, the divisions between would-be leaders and won't-be-led might have been just as great.

In the last instance, this is about democracy. Imagine a Europe whose constitution contained a nations'-rights treaty, specific and intended to be perpetual. Then imagine a fully-open Council of Ministers and a much stronger European Parliament, the latter connected closely to the national parliaments. With that structure, one could imagine also a cut in the power of the Commission. It would no longer be the motor for closer union because the Union treaty would have been settled. There would still be eruptions of local resentment but we would have a more open and flexible Community, one not simply the property of its political elites.

Is that kind of Community in any way achievable over these next few years? If it isn't, then I strongly suspect the June Movement, and similar revolts, will be the wave of the future.

(Photograph omitted)