To be or not to be an integral part of Europe, that is indeed the question for Danes going to the polls next week. When the country of Hamlet votes on whether to join the common European currency, the euro, questions of national identity - not monetary sovereignty - will be uppermost in most voters' minds.
"Denmark or the United States of Europe - the choice is yours," says one slogan by the anti-euro Danish People's Party in a closely fought campaign. It plays effectively on fears shared by many Danes that their culture, institutions - even their queen - are under threat along with their 800-year-old currency, the krone.
Denmark's debate echoes many new qualms being felt across the Continent, as citizens wonder what they will get for "being European" in exchange for turning in part of their sense of "being French," or German, or British.
"There is a lack of trust" in European institutions that is spreading even in countries that have long been enthusiastic about European integration such as Germany and Spain," notes Mark Leonard, head of the Foreign Policy Centre, a London think tank close to the British government. "There's a growing degree of disenchantment."
That disenchantment is getting a vigorous airing in Denmark, where the polls show the euro-skeptics to be marginally ahead, despite the government's strong support for the european currency.
"The euro will remain a reality with or without the Danes," said Marianne Jelved, the economics minister, recently. "The question is: Do we want Denmark and Europe, or Denmark in Europe?
Indeed, with the krone already locked into an exchange rate mechanism that means it effectively mirrors the value of the euro, economic and monetary arguments carry little weight with the voters.
Instead, in this small country of a little more than 5 million people, known best for its benign queen, its dairy products, its fairy tales, and a generous welfare system, the referendum has sparked a debate about who the Danes are and where they belong in Europe.
Their answer will have repercussions well beyond Denmark itself. The governments of Britain and Sweden - also due to hold referendums on joining the euro - will be watching the results very closely and a "no" vote here would encourage anti-euro forces elsewhere, political observers say.
Stumping for new money
With the race too close to call, Danish politicians of every stripe have taken their campaigns on whirlwind tours of the country. On a recent afternoon, addressing a meeting at a high school 20 miles south of Copenhagen, Social Democrat Ritt Bjerregaard had little of her voice left after weeks on the stump.
"The euro is simple, it's about influence," she argues. "Europe consists of different national states, languages, cultures, and societies. We've chosen that these differences, which formerly meant wars and unrest, should become our strength," and the common currency would enhance that strength.
Not everyone is persuaded. "They talk too much about other countries. The most important thing for me is what is going on in Denmark," says Lisbeth Lund, a student, who says she will be voting "no" in the Sept. 28 referendum.
"As a small country, we don't have a lot of say in the European process," she complains.
That outlook is gaining ground here, where the populist and nationalist Danish People's Party has been winning more votes, and in neighboring Norway - the only Scandinavian country to have stayed out of the European Union.
"We have long waiting lists at the hospitals, care for the elderly is in a bad state, fuel is too expensive and so is alcohol," says Geir Ruud, a political analyst with the Norwegian daily Verdens Gang. "It is a simple world: If you promise cheaper fuel and alcohol, you will get votes."
He worries, though, that, "with the advance of the [nationalist] parties we become increasingly insular, and Denmark, like Norway, runs the risk of losing influence in Europe."
Mr. Leonard sees darker forces behind Danish fears of being swallowed in a European identity. "Definitely some Danes are motivated by xenophobia," he argues. "There's an element of that in all countries, but in Britain and in Denmark it is a bit more alive."
"That's nonsense," ripostes Jens Peter Bonde, a leading anti-euro campaigner from the left-wing June Movement. What he objects to, he says, is central government from Brussels, the European Union headquarters.
"The European Union is more centrally controlled than the United States," he argues. "In the US, individual states have the freedom to decide things like environmental regulation" and the referendum "is about that freedom. It is not an economic choice but a political one."
As a currency, the krone may be worth only 13 cents, but its symbolic value is precious. That the Germans and French have given up their deutschmarks and francs does not impress Bonde, who says it would be wiser to wait and see how the euro fares before giving up the krone.
The incredible shrinking euro
The fact that the euro has fallen steadily against the US dollar and other major currencies since it was introduced in January 1999 has not helped the pro-euro forces' cause. The European currency stood at 85 cents on Sept. 19, 30 percent off its launch value.
Government leaders look beyond that unfortunate reality, however, to the symbolism of next week's vote.
"This referendum is about a whole or a divided Europe," insists Ms. Jelved. "If the Danes vote against the euro, they help create a schism. A 'yes,' on the other hand, would express confidence in cooperation and integration between countries."
But Denmark, speaking for a growing number of Europeans, shows none of that confidence. Instead, as the British novelist Fay Weldon wrote recently, this small Nordic country is behaving like a bride on the brink of marriage, unsure about her suitor.
But when the Danes vote, the ballot paper will offer them a stark choice: "yes" or "no."
There will be no room for a coy "maybe."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society