The voters of Denmark sent a rude wake-up call this week to those who have long been dreaming of evolving the European Economic Community into a United States of Europe.
The message of that call amounts to a stark admission that many Europeans still can't or won't look and aspire beyond present national boundaries even though rapid improvements in transportation and communications keep making the world a smaller, more interdependent place in which to live.As a result, those who still wish to pursue the dream must either proceed without the Danes and possibly others or redraft a new and more modest set of blueprints for building a United States of Europe.
The blueprints rejected this week by the Danes were modest enough. Yes, those designs contemplated the eventual development of a common currency as well as common foreign and defense policies plus common citizenship for the 12 nations of the European Community. But the treaty rejected Tuesday committed Denmark and the other nations just to target dates rather than to a rigid timetable. The only really firm commitment was to keep striving toward those objectives.
Now that the people of Denmark have rejected the treaty by a vote of 50.7 per cent to 49.3 percent - a difference of a mere 46,269 voters - France, Germany and possibly other nations that had required only their parliaments to approve are talking about putting the issue to a popular vote.
What's more, the Danish rejection can be expected to deal a heavy blow to drives by Sweden, Norway, Finland, Switzerland and Austria to enter the European Community.
Objections to the treaty - which cannot take effect without unanimous approval by the 12 nations unless it is rewritten - center on fears that greater political and economic unity in Europe would undermine regional cultures and national autonomy.
The fears are exaggerated. Different languages and traditions simply cannot be wiped out by decree, and no such decree was ever contemplated. Moreover, it's hard to see how Europe can fail to keep building on the increased unity it has already developed without stagnating.
For example, the plan to abandon the French franc, the German mark and the Greek drachma in favor of a common European currency for consumer transactions is simply the logical next step after an earlier decision to use a common currency unit called the Ecu only as an accounting device.
A common currency for consumers could save Europeans up to $18 billion a year. Under the present system of separate currencies, a traveler with $1,212 could lose more than half of it to various fees charged when one travels to each of the 12 major countries in Europe.
In recent years, these countries have eliminated customs duties for products that cross their borders, created a common passport, and have jointly developed many weapons systems. It's only logical to keep pushing for still more unity. As long as Europe remains fragmented, it remains needlessly vulnerable to the internal antagonisms that produced two world wars along with many ethnic conflicts that continue to this day.
A United States of Europe is a dream that has been pursued, on and off, for nearly 50 years. To abandon this worthwhile objective now just because of the setback administered in Denmark would be a failure of nerve so shortsighted that history would not soon forgive it.