ECFR: Reinventing Europe: Denmark caught between ‘ins’ and ‘outs’
By Jonas Parello-Plesner & Lykke Friis
Denmark caught between ‘ins’ and ‘outs’
Forty years ago, in October 1972, the Danish people voted to join the European Community (joining a few months later in 1973, along with the UK and Ireland). But four decades on opinion polls suggest that Danish support for European integration is now at its lowest level since then.
Denmark is in a tricky position between the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’: there is insufficient public support for joining the Eurozone countries as they make an integrationist jump towards banking and political union; however the path that its traditional ally, the UK, seems to have chosen – that of wanting to renegotiate a looser form of membership – is regarded as a dead-end by governing elites. Instead, the Danish government has hoped that discussions about a new treaty would simply go away, leaving the EU frozen as it is with Denmark able to continue its Swiss-cheese version of EU membership, including opt-outs on the euro, defence and legal affairs. This situation is unsustainable, and leaves Denmark vulnerable to being swept up by decisions made elsewhere in Europe without the chance to shape them.
A model pupil that avoids the F-words
Denmark’s stance on EU affairs is paradoxical. In many ways it is a model pupil, and its EU presidencies have driven the EU forward, for instance on enlargement in both 1993 and 2002. It is often top of the class for following EU rules and applying them to national legislation. Denmark has actively shaped the agenda on issues like climate change and the environment (a Danish Commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, runs the EU’s climate change negotiations). As a small state, Denmark has also backed the EU’s role as a vehicle for foreign policy influence. It is also scrupulous on budgetary issues, and is the only EU country that currently fulfils the original admission criteria for joining the euro (its peg to the euro makes Denmark a de-facto euro country with national coins).
However many Danes have always remained sceptical about the EU’s founding vision of an ‘ever closer political union’. Danish politicians steer clear of F-words like Federation, Foreign Minister (like the UK Danes prefer to call Catherine Ashton the ‘High Representative for Foreign Affairs’) and Flag (the EU flag rarely flies except on Schuman day). There were also years of resistance before car number plates bore the EU stars around the letters ‘DK’.
Some suggest that this recalcitrance dates back to the 1970s, when EC accession was packaged with selling Danish agricultural produce. Integration was pragmatic, based around the single market and strong support for enlargement.
Multi-speed Europe started with Denmark
The most discernible split in attitudes to the EU is not so much between political parties but between political elites and the population. Most parties in parliament favour further integration, despite the euro crisis curbing their enthusiasm, with the Danish people more prone to step on the brake when consulted.
Unlike the majority of EU-member states Denmark has a tradition of putting EU questions to a popular vote. Although the present score is 4-2 to the ‘yes’ side, the government has lost two important referendums. The first time the public said ‘nej’ was with the Maastricht treaty in 1992. This lead to a ‘yes’ in a second referendum in which several Danish opt-outs were included (on defence, justice and home affairs and monetary union). These Danish opt-outs were the legal foundation of two-speed Europe. In a separate referendum on the euro in 2000, voters opted to keep Denmark’s national currency, the krone.
Due to its opt-outs Denmark is now outside the euro (and the all-important Eurozone group), and cannot participate in military operations under an EU flag. (The Danish soldiers who took part in NATO missions in Macedonia and Bosnia had to be withdrawn when the missions were handed over to the EU.) Arguably the opt-out on justice and home affairs has the largest impact on Denmark. For instance, Denmark is unable to participate in the EU’s fight against human trafficking, and once Europol cooperation is upgraded Denmark will have to opt out. Unlike the UK, Denmark is obliged to opt out of all supranational legal cooperation and is not able to decide on a case-by-case basis whether it wants to opt-in.
A standing commitment among the main parties to put the opt-outs to a popular vote has not led to any new referendums (despite a manifesto commitment by Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s government (2001-2009)). The current coalition government of Helle Thorning-Schmidt (a Social Democrat) also planned a referendum on the defence and justice and home affairs opt-outs, but this was suspended after the Danish EU-presidency ended in July. The official reason was uncertainty in the EU; the lack of popular support for the government and the EU in general probably contributed to the decision.
The nominal drive by elites for further Danish integration is therefore off the table for the foreseeable future, and there is also rising euroscepticism within traditionally pro-EU parties.
In the past centre-right parties (Conservatives, Liberals, Social/Liberals) tended to be more in favour of the EU, with those towards the left more sceptical. The populist (and largely eurosceptic) Danish People’s Party (led until August by Pia Kjærsgaard) is the only party that has suggested following the UK in renegotiating Danish membership of the EU.
Today, however, eurosceptical winds also blow among the centre-right parties, often coupled with demands for deregulation. At a recent party conference the leadership of the Conservatives was voted down by the grass roots over the abolition of the EU opt-outs. Søren Pape, the Conservative mayor of Viborg, noted that ‘many Conservatives don’t find that the EU should tinker with everything’. Similarly, a small Danish liberal party (Liberal Alliance) that was founded in 2008 has a staunch policy against ever joining the euro, seeing European monetary union as a flawed economic experiment.
The EU will move on; will Denmark too?
The Danish debate has been somewhat decoupled from mainstream Europe. When the Lisbon Treaty came into force, the Danish government and most politicians told the population that this was the final cornerstone of European integration. Although that seemed a reasonable assumption in 2008, the euro crisis has fundamentally changed the landscape and breathed life into a new push for further integration. José Manuel Barroso now speaks of a ‘federation of nation states’, while Angela Merkel suggests that political union and treaty changes are the next steps.
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