By Donella Meadows
–September 10, 1992–
In June the 5 million people of Denmark put the brakes on the rushing locomotive that was carrying 340 million people into a European political union. According to the Treaty of Rome, if any of the participating 12 nations fail to enter, the unification process stops. Therefore, legally, the European Union is now dead. The upcoming referendum in France on September 20 may bury it very deep.
The impertinent Danes did not intend to stop European cooperation, but to reshape it. “Europe Yes, Union No” is their motto. They are in favor of breaking down the narrow nationalisms and clumsy restrictions that have divided Europe for centuries. But they think the agreement reached in Maastricht last December, upon which they were voting, doesn’t accomplish that goal.
Maastricht, they say, is based on an obsolete model. It moves Europe toward centralized management, increased corporate power, reduced democracy, and environmental unsustainability. The formation of a new Europe is the chance of a lifetime, they say. Let’s not waste the opportunity. Their posters read: EUROPE DESERVES SOMETHING BETTER.
The purpose of Maastricht, say the Danish objectors, is to form another superpower, an entity that could outcompete the U.S. and Japan. We need fewer superpowers in the world, they say, preferably none. The Union would allow European troops to go beyond self-defense and patrol the world. We would rather work through the United Nations. Maastricht sets economic growth as the primary European goal. Environmental protection, social welfare, equity, concern for the Third World, are secondary concerns at best. Say the opponents: that’s not how we rank those values.
They were up against a strong tide flowing the other direction. Nearly 80 percent of the members of the Danish Parliament had declared their support for Maastricht. The prime minister was pushing hard for it, as were industry, most labor unions, and all the large newspapers.
So how did “no” win? With a grassroots base broad enough to include all possible reasons for objecting to the Union. The opposition movement, called “Denmark ’92,” attracted a range of “no” leaners, from left to right. “Denmark ’92” quickly set up more than 60 local groups, a central office with a staff of two, many volunteers, and two national spokespersons, a political scientist in her 40s and a physics professor in his 60s.
They knew they had to get out ahead of the wave of well-financed “yes” propaganda, so they did their homework fast. They saturated the nation with clear, sober brochures 4-8 pages long on all important aspects of the agreement — how it would affect energy, employment, environment, security, democracy. The brochures were distributed by local groups and placed in multiple copies in libraries and schools. The proponents of Maastricht will come out, they said, with the usual arguments threatening your job and the Danish economy. There is simply no basis to those threats. What’s at stake is not your job, but your democratic voice.
A stable of 100 speakers fanned out to attend meetings and debates. “Denmark ’92” activists bombarded the newspapers with articles, columns, and letters to the editor, so that, though the official editorials of the papers favored the union, their total content was at least neutral.
The “yes” forces answered back late but powerfully. They did indeed forecast economic collapse if “no” should prevail. Political and industrial leaders spoke out. Full-page advertisements were placed in all national newspapers. The “yes” proponents spent $5.5 million, against a total of $240,000 gathered by “Denmark ’92.”
Perhaps the worst mistake the government made was to distribute 500,000 copies of the actual Maastricht treaty. It is a long, unreadable, diplomatic document, but the Danes read it — and found the clauses that traded away their self-determination. Economic policy should aim at stabilizing prices, it said, not at fighting unemployment. On environmental questions the union should speak with one voice — which meant that strict Danish environmental standards would be lost. The union was to “harmonize” social policies; the treasured Danish principle of common welfare for all would fall to the privatization of social services.
The Danes do not insist that everyone live like Danes, but they believe that Danes should be able to live like Danes. To the astonishment of nearly every politician in Europe, “no” won by a narrow margin. That night there was a street party in Copenhagen.
“Denmark ’92” closed down, but when it became clear that other nations, and in particular France, would also have referenda, a new “June Movement” was created. It is working to translate the Danish grassroots materials into other languages, and to prepare an alternative White Paper to lay out a better model for European cooperation.
The Danes want the alternative vision to be based on widespread discussion, not on decisions made by movers and shakers in Brussels. They expect it to contain, for example, the stipulation that the Union set not maximum but minumum environmental standards, which any nation can set higher for itself without being accused of restraint of trade.
The “no” vote, followed closely by a surprise championship in the soccer World Cup, have given the Danes an unaccustomed heady feeling, which reached a peak during the EC Summit following the Danish vote. There the assembled prime ministers, in shock that a twerpy little northern nation had derailed their Union, concluded, “Maybe we should listen more to the people.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992