Denmark's Message

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Now that the Danes have dropped out of euroland again, disappointed Europeanists will look for solace in that hackneyed quote from Hamlet: "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." But read on to the less familiar line: "There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." What is this Danish bird trying to tell the rest of Europe? On the surface, the naysayers have signaled that the risks of hanging back are manageable. De facto, the Danes are part of the Economic and Monetary Union anyway. Having chained themselves to the (once) almighty deutsche mark 20 years ago, the Danes are now wedded to the euro, too. Informal membership has exacted a slight penalty: interest rates in Jutland are one percentage point higher than in Euroland. A flight from the kroner? That, too, has been discounted by Danes great and small.

So what has truly riled them? They saw a far greater threat to their "Danitude" than to their currency. This Danish sparrow has been able to enjoy a wonderful life, a Social Democratic dream remaining true in spite of rampant globalization. Taxes are high, and so is public spending. The watchwords are redistribution, regulation and egalitarianism. And yet, Denmark's unemployment is lower than Euroland's, and their prosperous economy is doing fine, thank you very much.

Hence the underlying message of the rejectionists to all good Europeans: "We don't know where we are going on this journey, but we have reached the end of a 50-year-old road along which European integration was practiced on the sly. The classic Monnet method was to Europeanize this or that economic sector, and the half-hidden premise was that each step would set up irresistible forces toward ever more integration all the way to the political realm. And we don't like it."

If it were just Denmark, Europe could shrug off the fall of the sparrow. But the Danes have articulated a malaise that stretches from Barcelona to Berlin. Where are we going, and why? Having lost much of our autonomy, do we want to give up our sovereignty as well? Are we in this for the goodies, such as the freedom to trade and to travel, or do we want to switch our loyalties to Brussels and Strasbourg (the seat of the European Parliament)?

This is why the Danish nej should be seen as a salutary shock. Europe is now left with three choices: business as usual, meaning muddling through; integration la carte whereby, say, the original Six proceed faster and farther; or a soul-searching constitutional debate on how power is to be shared between the states and "Europe."

The first choice is the most likely one because "muddling through" requires little imagination or effort. A Europe of "differing speeds" might work, too. But the most critical and courageous path would be No. 3: to ask, where do we want to go, and why? Put differently, this exercise is about the integration not of sectors, but of souls. It demands less pontificating and more persuasion; less fog and more light. All of Europe, the people as well as the politicos, may now reenact precisely the tortuous debate of the Danes. Let's talk not about emu but about emotions. Let's have a kind of constitutional convention that makes explicit how far we are and should be willing to go. And let's do it the Linux rather than the Microsoft way: write the program but keep the architecture open.