A big question was asked in many EU capitals after the British referendum on 23 June: would Eurosceptic voters in other countries demand similar votes, risking the whole European project?
Denmark was one of the countries analysts expected would be most easily inspired by the Brexit vote – not only in terms of demand for a referendum, but also for wanting to leave the EU. The Danes entered the European Economic Community with the Brits in 1973, and has since been a close ally of the United Kingdom (certainly in terms of votes in the Council of Ministers). Denmark has voted against EU treaties several times in the past, leaving it with four opt-outs. Like Britain, it is one of the EU’s most reluctant players. Take into consideration the political climate in Denmark over the past five years or so, with its centre-right and centre-left parties increasingly affected by the popularity of the highly-Eurosceptic Danish People’s Party (DPP), and the idea that the Danes may leave too, or at least demand a referendum, isn’t so far-fetched.
The EU policies of Danish centrist parties over the past half decade have been characterised by a fear of losing votes to the Eurosceptic extremes, both on the Left and the Right. The DPP in particular has been able to set out an authoritative Eurosceptic agenda. It has forced the more moderate liberals, conservatives and Social Democrats to swing in that direction. The landslide
victory of Morten Messerschmidt, who won a record 465,000 personal votes as the DPP’s top candidate in the 2014 European Parliament elections, pushed the moderates even further towards
Eurosceptic rhetoric and positions.
So the idea that the Danes could push for their own referendum was not entirely unrealistic. In the months leading up to the British vote, several surveys showed a substantial part of the Danish
electorate wanted a similar remain-or-leave poll: 40% were in favour of a referendum, while 45% were against (although these surveys also suggested that a majority of Danes actually preferred
to stay in the EU). But what is even more telling is that after the British voted to leave the EU, the number in favour of a referendum dropped to only 32%.
EU-friendly sentiments have had proven strength in other polls too. In a post-Brexit referendum survey asking whether people fully support EU membership, 70% of Danish voters answered positively. The same tendency has been apparent in Sweden and the Netherlands. Contrary to what was predicted by many doomsayers, few European voters have been won over by the
Brexiteers’ victory. A Eurobarometer poll published in July suggests that the free movement of people, goods and services is viewed as the most positive result of the EU, and no country other than Britain registered less than 68% support for the principle of freedom of movement. In Denmark, this continued support for the EU has meant the Unity List – the country’s most left-wing party – is now alone in making a rather lacklustre request for a Danish referendum.
“Contrary to what was predicted by many doomsayers, few European voters have been won over by the Brexiteers’ victory”
Though Danish Eurosceptic sentiments have cooled in the aftermath of the UK vote, the British situation may still pose challenges for Denmark’s EU policy. The issue is delicate, as shown by the government’s first reaction to the result. It very quickly dismissed any prospect of a similar referendum in Denmark, but also rushed to emphasise the need for reform of the EU. So far, the government can count on the support of the Social Democrats, but the pro-EU social liberals – the Radical Left – are critical of the government’s recurrent signals of wanting to diminish EU powers in a bid to accommodate sceptics. There is little doubt that the DPP will be watching the Brexit negotiations intently, and in time may use them and their outcome to stir up fresh Euroscepticism or raise new demands with the pro-EU majority in the Danish Parliament.
Denmark’s Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, has stressed that securing Danish interests when negotiating the UK’s exit will be a top priority, but keeping Britain as a close ally will also be a plus for Denmark. The balancing act for the Danish government will be to secure a favourable deal for Britain but not make it attractive enough for Danish Eurosceptics to gain a new impetus in their push for a referendum. It’s also important to stress that Denmark is greatly concerned about an EU without the British. The UK is one of Denmark’s principle trading partners and an important EU ally on issues such as trade and social policy.
Nevertheless, there are important differences between the two countries. Denmark has never felt quite as detached from the continent as the UK has. In fact, Germany is becoming increasingly
popular among Danes, who are buying real estate in Berlin like never before. These days, Danes probably feel more attached to northern Europe than to the British Isles.
It would be wrong to suggest that Europe’s leaders have nothing to fear from Denmark or elsewhere, or that there are no lessons to be learnt from the British decision to leave the EU. There is still
dissatisfaction to be found in many parts of the European public. But what the polls suggest, at least for now, is that European electorates aren’t tempted by the unpredictable impulsiveness of
Brexit and the post-referendum chaos playing out in Westminster and beyond. To put it differently, Europe’s voters may want to reform the EU, sometimes drastically, but they want to work with
what they already have.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – Jacob Bøtter