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Playtime is over in the land of fairy tales and Lego. For seven months, Denmark has been ruled by a center-right minority government, which is dependent for parliamentary support on the radical right People's Party. New immigration laws inspired by that party went into effect last week. Human rights groups call the new laws "the most draconian in contemporary Europe."

Denmark, known for its policemen who stop traffic to let the ducklings cross the street, has become - to its critics - the ugly duckling of Europe. The Guardian reported last week from Copenhagen that since the government adopted the new laws, immigration traffic has dwindled. At political asylum centers, demand for anti-depressants is on the rise. Some immigrants have dyed their hair blond. Others are wearing blue-tinted contact lenses.

These descriptions do not amuse Prime Minister Andres Fogh Rasmussen. On July 1, when the immigration laws took effect, his country assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union. Rasmussen hopes to use the presidency to finish the historic process of expanding the union eastward, and thus, to rid Denmark of the xenophobic reputation it won with the swing rightward. "Our readiness to open up to workers from Eastern Europe proves we are not xenophobic," the prime minister said last week.

"From Copenhagen to Copenhagen" is the Danish EU president's slogan - the 1993 EU summit in Copenhagen marked the beginning of the expansion. At the summit slated to conclude the current presidency, in December 2002, Denmark plans to complete the expansion discussion with the 10 candidates - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Repubic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Cyprus and Malta. According to the plan, all 10 will join the EU as full members in 2004.

The task has become a national obsession in Denmark. Rasmussen is pinning all his prestige on its fulfillment. But what he calls "the most important European task since the end of the world war" faces some enormous obstacles:

- Ireland and the Treaty of Nice: In June 2001, an Irish referendum rejected the Treaty of Nice, which establishes the legal framework for expanding the EU. If the Irish reject the treaty in a second round referendum slated for October, it could plunge the EU into a crisis that could postpone the entire expansion process.

- Cyprus: Greece might veto expansion if Cyprus's inclusion is prevented by a failure of the peace talks between the two communities on the island. The Turks, for their part, might annex the northern part of the island they conquered in 1974. Furthermore, a frustrated Turkey could use its membership in Nato to sabotage the security interests of the EU.

- Czech Republic: The right-wing government in Austria is threatening to veto adding the Czechs to the union if the dispute over the expulsion of 3 million Germans from the Sudeten is not resolved.

- Joint agricultural policy: One of the hardest nuts to crack. The anachronistic joint agricultural policy swallows up about half the EU budget. Adding Eastern European countries, which are mostly agricultural, could weigh heavily on the European budget. Germany, the largest contributor to the EU, is demanding far-reaching reforms in the agricultural policies before any expansion. France, which benefits most from the farming subsidies, vehemently rejects those demands. No compromise on the issue can be expected before the new government is installed in Germany, after the September 22 elections.

The Middle East will also be an issue for the new EU president. "We plan to be very active in the region," said a senior official in the Danish foreign ministry. Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller went to Washington last week with initiatives "meant to fill the vacuum that could result in the territories, following the Bush speech." According to the senior official, the minister won the support of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

The initiative, which will be presented on Copenhagen on Wednesday to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, calls for three committees of technocrats who will deal with security, economics and organizing the elections in the Palestinian Authority. Each committee will have representatives from the "Madrid quartet" - the U.S., the UN, the EU and Russia - along with representatives from Israel, the PA, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Danes believe the committees could create political momentum that would lead to a new framework at the foreign minister level.

Israel is unperturbed by the Danish activity. Rasmussen is apparently the most pro-Zionist president to run the EU in a long time, they're saying in Jerusalem. "He's a real American groupie. He backed Defensive Shield, supported the Bush speech, and won't do anything the Americans don't accept." His foreign minister may not be as enthusiastic as he is, but he's far from his predecessor, who was considered hostile to Israel. If there's anything to be cautious about, they're saying in Jerusalem, it's that Copenhagen might want to appear more balanced and won't be smiling so broadly at Israel.