WHILE American primary voters were predictably backing the presidential front-runners this week, the Danes were producing a genuine surprise. By a narrow margin, Denmark's electorate chose not to ratify the groundbreaking treaty on European political and monetary union signed last December in Maastricht, the Netherlands.
For Europeans, this means the unification express is derailed, at least temporarily. The Danish vote adds to the tendency - encouraged especially by Britain - to slow things down and adopt an "a la carte" approach to unity, with special arrangements made to address the concerns and needs of individual countries.
The immediate task for European Community (EC) officials is construction of a detour around the Danish decision. They are likely to come up with clarifications that will address the concerns of Denmark's voters in hopes that a second referendum could be held there later.
By that later date, a number of other countries will likely have ratified the treaty in their parliaments and the Danes could be nudged along by the momentum. Other popular referenda, slated for Ireland and now, in the wake of Demark, France, are question marks. The EC hopes to implement the treaty by next Jan. 1.
What are the Danish concerns? Fear of German domination within the community. A general loss of sovereignty. But perhaps the average Dane's greatest concern was that the whole enterprise was rolling ahead and he or she had had little say about it. Among EC members, Britain alone has had a substantial national debate on the kind of tightened unity envisioned at Maastricht.
The current slowdown may give citizens in other countries a chance to join in that debate - and political leaders a chance to explain the concept of a "new Europe" in clearer terms than they have so far. If unity among Europe's democracies is to prosper, it will have to rest on democratic consent.
In the long run, Denmark's vote could put the deepening and eventual enlarging of the EC more firmly back on track.