ON a sunny spring afternoon in central Copenhagen, a lone juggler draws a round of hearty chuckles with a reference to Denmark's upcoming referendum on the European Community's Maastricht Treaty.
"All the politicians are saying `Yes, yes, yes!,' " he says, juggling the balls in an up-and-down pattern. "But the people," he adds, suddenly switching to a forceful horizontal toss, "are answering, `No, no, no!' "
With polls showing a 20-point lead for the "yes" vote nearly three weeks before the referendum, the juggler may not be Denmark's most reliable political observer. But with support for Maastricht still hovering around the 50 percent mark, with "no" and "don't know" sharing the other half, no one is ready to discount his scenario just yet.
After shocking Europe by voting "no" to the treaty on economic and political union last June, Danes return to the polls May 18 to see if this time they are ready to say "yes." What they decide will go a long way in determining the direction of Europe.
For those who dream of a federal Europe, the signs are not good. The EC signed a special accord with Denmark in Edinburgh last December that allows Denmark to opt out of Maastricht's single currency and European central bank, an eventual common defense, and an EC citizenship. The fact that the outcome remains less than certain even after Edinburgh suggests how ambivalent the Danes remain about Europe's integration.
"My heart tells me to vote `no,' but my head says there's no choice but `yes,' " says a shipping company executive over lunch in Copenhagen. "But if someone in my position feels that way, I can understand those who'll vote `no.' There's still a lot about it the Danish people don't like."
If the Danes vote to ratify Maastricht this time, it will be more out of fear for the economic consequences of a "no" vote, than out of any fervent support for the treaty's goals.
"There is no enthusiasm" for Maastricht, says Lars Bille, a political scientist at the University of Copenhagen. "Those who plan to vote `yes' say they will do so because they see no alternative, because Denmark can't stand alone, or because they fear a `no' would push unemployment that's already 12 percent even higher," he adds. "Only about 10 percent say `yes' because they see any positive development from the idea of European unity."
The Danish Finance Ministry caused a row recently with a report claiming that Denmark would lose 5 percent of its total employment and up to 8 percent of national income if the country said "no" again. The report assumed a "no" would force Denmark to leave the EC.
Yet for many here who have come to support the EC as an essential economic link, the fear is not so much that Denmark would be kicked out of EC, but marginalized - a scenario that worries business and farmers.
Beyond the economic argument, however, many Maastricht supporters emphasize that more than economics has changed since 50.7 percent of the Danes turned down Maastricht June 2, 1992. Denmark's "no" has awakened EC leadership in Brussels to the widespread desire across the EC for a more open, more democratic, less bureaucratic, less centralized Community, they say. Many Community decisions since June indicate these concerns have already been heeded, they add.
The Danish Labor Organization, very active in the "yes" campaign, has one poster showing a train track switching system and stating, "344 million Europeans have taken 46,847 Danes seriously," referring to the razor-thin majority of "no" votes. But this argument, that the Danes are no longer alone in Europe, is also being used by the "no" forces.
"The Danes no longer feel they are alone if they say `no' to Maastricht," says Niels Meyer, a physicist and leader of the June Movement, the principal anti- Maastricht organization. "Events since Denmark voted against this treaty show that we struck a chord." But the June Movement emphasizes that Maastricht is an outdated text that will hinder Europe in addressing its biggest challenges.
"Maastricht is not a solution but a problem for today's Europe," says Lise Lyck, an economics professor here. "It centralizes the government of Western Europe when the main challenge is how to integrate the new democracies of Eastern Europe as quickly as possible."
Maastricht is still equated with bigger government, when Danish democracy and tradition argues for closer government-people contact. Also lurking in the thoughts of mostly older "no" supporters is a fear of Germany, Denmark's neighbor to the south. "The older people haven't forgotten that the last time anyone proposed a monetary union with Denmark, it was Nazi Germany," one political observer says.
The June Movement argues that the Edinburgh agreement really changes nothing, and that a "yes" to Maastricht will still take Denmark down the road to union.
Yet while many "yes" supporters agree that technically the Danes will be voting on the same treaty, they point out that the Edinburgh accord guarantees the Danes they will have other referendums before any government signs up Denmark for the more sovereignty-eroding aspects of political and economic union.
"Our main argument is that now we've got what we asked for, so we can't keep saying `no,' " says Ivar Norgaard, a Social-Democratic parliamentarian. "Denmark did Europe a favor by redirecting an integration process that was proceeding down a path without public support. Now it's time to say `yes.' "