DID Danish voters save the construction of a new Europe by voting against it?
That is not a thesis that leaders of the European Community (EC) are ready to accept. But it is the point of view of a growing number of European analysts and average members of the public, speaking in interviews, letters to the editor, and on the street.
Rejecting last week's referendum on deeper European union, Denmark may have unwittingly tossed a life-preserver to an integration effort that seemed destined to drown in its own inaccessibility and the public's incomprehension. By turning a bureaucratic exercise into a political debate with living, breathing consequences, these observers say, the Danish shock may yet cause the EC's citizens to adopt Europe's integration process as their own. (Major's bid, Page 6.)
"Thank you, Denmark," wrote Serge July, editor of the Paris daily, Liberation. "The European construction that was on technocratic pilot is the big loser [after] Copenhagen... For Europeans to adopt Europe ... it had to become flesh and blood."
"I think most forward-looking people are for some form of European union," says Antoine Lemasson, a Parisian and publisher of a videotape rental publication, "but is this the right one? Without the Danes, we wouldn't have known what we were getting into. Sooner or later people would have balked."
It has been a week since Denmark said "no" in the first plebiscite on the EC's Maastricht Treaty on deepening political and economic integration. At an emergency meeting June 4, EC foreign ministers decided their countries (minus Denmark) should press ahead with treaty ratification. They also put off answering the hard question of how to legalize a treaty that must have unanimous assent.
But with concern growing that what some observers have called the "ostrich response" could further alienate the public, many European leaders are calling for redoubled efforts to explain a treaty negotiated behind closed doors last year and with virtually no public participation. Education effort
French President Francois Mitterrand, who just announced a French referendum, kicked off a public education effort by staging a question-and-answer session at a top political studies school.
Clamor for a referendum is growing in Britain - the only country where the national parliament debated the issues of Maastricht before the treaty was signed in December - and in Germany.
Ireland, the only other country to have scheduled a referendum, will vote June 18.
In Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl has responded to new public questions about Maastricht with warnings that European integration is needed to "anchor" the country's growing political power.
Yet that argument misses the focal point of German concerns, which is that Germany would lose the most important symbol of its post-war stability and prosperity - the deutsche mark - if the treaty's plan for a single European currency by the end of the century is adopted.
In polls since the Danish vote, Germans have favored European union. But at the same time, one poll showed nearly three-fourths oppose losing the deutsche mark, while an almost equal percentage say Germany should retain sovereignty over foreign policy and economic decisions.
"There is a gulf between people's abstract idea of European unity and what it would actually entail to become reality," says a German official. "We have to narrow that gap through education if we want people to stand behind this construction, but of course that risks adding to the number of people who are opposed."
That risk is also a factor in France, where large segments of a population that is generally considered to be pro-Europe say the Danish "no" vote indicates there may be too much in the Maastricht Treaty they couldn't accept.
"I'm aware that the Danes were more informed than we are, and they voted no," says Annie Gazel, an unemployed mother of two from Chantilly, France. "Their `no' raises doubts."
In Denmark, the government distributed 500,000 copies of the treaty in a country of 4 million voters. The French say a similar effort is necessary before their referendum, which will take place sometime in the fall.
"The treaty needs to be available, at least in every city hall," says Roger Methiviers, a farmer who raises wheat, barley, and sugar beets in the La Beauce region of north-central France.
Many of his neighbors insist they will vote against the treaty because they consider European integration bad for farming communities, Mr. Methiviers says.
"I don't agree with an automatic `no. We have to be much better informed." Support in south
That desire to know more about the treaty is not uniform across Europe. While the post-Danish-vote debate rages in the north, the EC's southern countries have remained calm.
"The public perception of European union in northern Europe was not keeping pace with the political elite, and Denmark is the result," says Luis Moreno Fernandez, a political scientist with the Institute for Advanced Social Studies in Madrid. "But that is not the case in Spain."
Strong support for EC integration in Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Ireland - the so-called "poor four" - is the result of the role the EC has played in raising those countries' standards of living.