The kind of democracy Europe deserves

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IT IS always dangerous and usually stupid to predict the result of a referendum; but the gap between Danish Yes and No voters in today's poll on Maastricht seems very wide. Both sides privately expect a Yes vote. If it happens, the sigh of relief from Europe's political class will turn windmills across the continent. The crusade for European Union will be resumed with renewed enthusiasm.

But what about all those foot soldiers who don't want to come along? A Danish 'ja' will not obliterate them from the soil of Europe, even if it wipes them off Europe's political map. When John Major responds to the referendum in a speech this evening, he would do well to remember the millions of Euro-dissenters.

Although they have been particularly stroppy in Denmark and Britain, they are a truly European phenomenon. The latest Europe-wide opinion poll suggests that 38 per cent of French voters are still against Maastricht and so are 30 per cent of Germans. (The figure for Britain is 43 per cent against.) Even in those bigger European countries that have traditionally been pro-EC, millions of citizens are dubious. Of Spaniards, only 34 per cent say they would vote for Maastricht, and half of all those asked don't know. In Italy, 35 per cent don't know.

These figures represent a vast army of the unconvinced, marooned glumly at the heart of Europe. In some countries, above all France (which had its salutary referendum, as well as its elections), the political leadership has become a touch more sceptical, too. But in most of the EC nations, the political class is unrepentant. Anti-Maastricht sentiment is the unlovely idiocy of backward-looking peasants; it is the duty of their rulers to pretend they don't exist.

Apart from its arrogance, this is a dangerous political gamble. In most of Western Europe there is a small but significant segment of opinion that is xenophobic, and nationalist in the worst sense. The natural level of this neo-nationalism is probably below 10 per cent - the German Republicans hover at around 6 per cent.

But it can be pushed higher. The French National Front won 12.5 per cent of the national vote in the recent elections. Specific local problems, such as the corruption of the Italian political class, or anti-immigrant sentiment in depressed Flanders, can send it rocketing. In Britain, the existence of a right-wing nationalist strain of Toryism makes the true figure hard to guess. Everywhere, though, the neo- nationalists are a dark political ghetto.

So far, they are only a well-organised and sizeable minority of those who oppose European Union. Will they always be? Perhaps: but that is the gamble. A tighter, more burdensome and bureaucratic Union created over the next few years by the European ruling class (people who are already unpopular) could give Europe's nationalists their Great Cause, their route into the mainstream.

Today, that possibility is only a nightmare. But the conditions exist for a vicious turning-point in European politics. The continental countries are deeply mired in recession. Immigration is a live issue in Germany, France and the Mediterranean countries. There is a widespread resentment that 'they' are busy building an incomprehensible and remote imperium at Brussels. These resentments may not coalesce. But it takes remarkable self-confidence to dismiss the Danish revolt as a one-off.

And here we come to the contribution that British leadership could make, but probably won't. For the anti-Maastricht mood is better understood in London than in most other EC capitals. It is here that ministers speak with most conviction of the need to rein back Brussels and to make the EC relevant to its people.

The trouble is, having got the analysis right - too little democracy, too much bureaucracy - British Tories are unwilling to argue for the obvious remedy, the only alternative to ditching European Union. That remedy is breathtakingly simple: make the EC more democratic.

The European Union of Maastricht cannot last - you cannot have an incomprehensible democracy. That is well understood in London. But a Community that pulled back to a smaller core, or fragmented into old- style nationalism, would be intolerable. And that too is well understood in London. So Douglas Hurd concentrates on a looser Europe of intergovernmental deals. So too, the British emphasis on finickity matters, such as the operation of qualified majority voting. All good stuff, no doubt, but not the heart of the matter - not, essentially, about creating a European- wide democracy.

The trouble is, a democratic Europe, one with proper controls over what is done centrally, must be partly federalist. It must have more powers for its parliament and an open, argumentative Council of Ministers. It might also use EC-wide referendums to legitimise the next round of Community treaty-making in 1996.

Those reforms would preserve the uncertainty and excitement of democracy at the centre of the Community. They are the reforms that pro-European democrats ought to be championing, and a far better response to the dissidents than dull packages of bureaucratic changes or more behind- closed-doors deals between ministers. A democratic Europe would be one worth Mr Major speaking up for tonight. It would be the kind of bold initiative that would give him a distinctive agenda and put Britain at the heart of the Community debate. Sadly the demands of Tory unity will probably prevent it. If the whip again takes precedence over the statesman, Mr Major will have lost a great opportunity. And so will we all.