DANES FLOCK TO GERMAN SHOPS

Deficient as the Common Market may still be in many ways, particularly with regard to non-tariff barriers, there is no doubt that its citizens trade with one another with far greater freedom than 15 or 20 years ago.

A case in point is the mass invasion of shops on the German side of the German-Danish frontier by bargain hunting Danes.It is nothing unusual, of course, for people living close to a national border to cross it because this or that commodity is a little cheaper on the other side. But here it is different. The buyers pouring in come from the cities and towns all over the Jutland Peninsula and Fyn Island. They travel 150 miles and more and think nothing of it.

That's not all that surprising either. Beer in the German shops costs only one-half of what it does in Denmark, and tobacco, wine and spirits likewise are considerably cheaper.

Things will get worse before they get better, moreover. As of Jan. 1, a European Community directive stipulates, one-day travelers will be allowed to import more cigarettes and spirits than they may now.

All this is upsetting shopkeepers in Denmark. Already it has forced some of them out of business. It is crazy, said one of their spokesmen, to send huge trucks with Danish products across the border, and then have Danish individuals fetch them back again.

It is upsetting, too, to the Danish authorities. They estimate that these border operations add up to a 3.5 billion kroner ($470 million) minus in the country's payments balance, corresponding to one-tenth of the overall payments deficit anticipated for this year, and to one-half of Denmark's trade deficit vis-a-vis Western Germany.

The government is investigating whether it cannot apply the brakes by taxing bus operators who are carting Danes back and forth at bargain prices, and thereby force them to jack up the price of the tickets.

It is openly admitted that the bus operators can offer low fares because of the handsome bonuses they receive from the German store organizations. Millions of deutsche mark are involved, and the premium paid for each Danish passenger may run as high as $2.

Taxing the bus operators and thus forcing them to charge their passengers more, however, will not probably change the situation much. More and more people use their own automobiles on these shopping sprees.

For good reason. No matter how far from the border they live, with gasoline costing about $1.35 a gallon less in Germany than in Denmark, they already will have paid for the trip when they fill up their tank "south of the border."

It is not easy to see how the Danes, whether the government or private citizens, will resolve this impasse. Inevitably, there are several ways of looking at it.

It could be argued, for instance, that while the Danish economy as a whole suffers losses, they are far less than what Denmark gains from the workings of the EC's common agricultural policy.

Why should EC membership confer nothing but advantages to a country with so high a standard of living?

Alternatively, if beer, spirits, tobacco and fuels cost so much more in Denmark, this results from the taxes they include. Taxes have risen sky-high to finance the welfare state for which successive governments from all segments of the political spectrum have opted for decades past.

Theoretically, the topsy-turvy conditions at the Danish-German border should disappear by 1992, when, as conceived by the EC Commission, all internal hurdles in the EC will have been swept away and tax rates harmonized.

It may be too early to say whether this is a realistic or a utopian target.

What can be said, though, is that the needed harmonization will have to be made gradually rather than in one fell swoop. This being so, it should become evident within a year or two whether national governments are willing to make a start in the right direction, or will simply dig in their heels.

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