The Danes are, in many ways, as eurosceptic as the Brits. But they have found a way to express their independence within the EU. MARK REID reports
If Brexit was the result of a popular belief that Britain, when it came to the EU, was the odd one out, it was a mistaken one. For, ever since it became a member of what was then the EEC, the UK has been joined in the Brussels awkward squad by Denmark.
The Scandinavian country’s sceptical relationship with the EU has always mirrored that of Britain’s, and the wary attitude of many Danes to Brussels is perhaps the closest of all Europeans to that of the Britons who voted for Brexit.
Crucially, though, Denmark has always concluded that it is better off being on the inside – if a sometimes reluctant, truculent insider – than on its own on the outside.
In the 1960s, when Copenhagen saw Britain’s entry to the EEC blocked by France it withdrew its own application. It then reapplied when the UK did and the two countries joined, together, in 1973.
Britain was Denmark’s largest trading partner, so it felt little choice in following in its footsteps. Since becoming a member, it has reflected the same scepticism of Britain towards the European project, securing, alongside London, the most opt-outs.
The abrupt Danish ‘no’ – nej – in the Maastricht Treaty referendum in June 1992 led Copenhagen to demand four exemptions. Brussels realised these concessions were the only way to get Maastricht past the Danish voters, and Denmark received opt-outs from monetary union, justice and home affairs, security and defence policy, and citizenship of the EU. Voters duly switched to a ‘yes’ – ja – in a second referendum in May 1993, turning the 51-49 against into 57-43 in favour.
Britain, meanwhile, had secured its own opt-outs at the Maastricht summit in December 1991. It was left out of plans for monetary union and the Social Chapter on workers’ rights and conditions. British demands also saw the word ‘federal’ removed the treaty and it stated that decisions would be taken at a national level wherever possible (the principle of ‘subsidiarity’).
The two opt-outs which best sum up Denmark’s desire to keep its own profile within the EU were those on the currency and immigration policy. Denmark’s decision not to join the euro and to keep the krone is a symbolic part of the psychology of Danish independence. There is, though, a hotly-contested debate in the country about whether a separate currency helps monetary policy and keeps trade stable.
Within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), the krone is ‘fixed’ within a ± 2.25% band around the value of the euro. However, the Danish central bank is forever fighting to keep the peg, propping up the krone against pressure from financial markets. Such pressures saw the pound fall lower than its minimum level in the ERM and crash out on Black Wednesday in September 1992 – despite the British government buying up sterling and raising interest rates to 15%.
Denmark’s opt-out from justice and home affairs was based on a fear its voice would not be heard; because the majority voting system for EU decisions meant it otherwise faced having to accepting a softer line on immigration and asylum.
At the time of Maastricht, while I was making a BBC World Service programme on euroscepticism, I met Pia Kjaersgaard, an MP who went on to lead the right-wing Danish People’s Party and is now speaker of the Danish parliament. I was invited into her office – all very hygge, complete with a little teddy bear snuggled on the sofa – and told that immigration was the main cause of worries over Danish identity.
I was shocked when she said to me: ‘I don’t see why people born in mud-huts in Africa should get a house in my country.’ Yet, such outspoken fears about foreigners have not seen Denmark go down a route towards leaving the EU exit door.
This is because opposition to immigration has not been directed at Brussels as much as it has in Britain. Instead, as a result of their opt-out, the Danes have considered it an issue that should be addressed themselves. The ways in which it has been tackled, domestically, have not been without controversy. For instance, a ‘burqa ban’, on face coverings in public, became law in Denmark earlier this year, prompted criticism both at home and abroad.
Danish voters confirmed its justice and home affairs opt-out in a further referendum in 2015, which meant Denmark was not included in plans to share new arrivals among member states, following the migrant crisis of that year.
Instead, Danes have their own scope for action on immigration and asylum. It has introduced rules that spouses of immigrants can only join their partners in Denmark if they are over 24 years old and the country has seen a significant reduction in family re-unification residency permits. Under the current centre-right coalition, which needs the support of the People’s Party’s 37 MPs for a majority, there have been almost 100 separate tightenings of immigration rules, including measures linking them to minor crimes such as fare dodging on public transport.
Denmark has used the laws it does control, along with its EU opt-outs, to contain immigration issues and euro-scepticism. While Britain ended up with Brexit, Denmark has been able to consolidate its limited EU status. In Britain, especially under Conservative governments, Europe has always been portrayed as them and us. British opt-outs were seen as patriotic triumphs, not a balancing act. Denmark, as a small country, sees it can easily punch above its weight being part of the EU. Its opt-outs mean it can avoid feeling subsumed.
Like the British, the Danish people pride themselves on a no-nonsense worldview. Like the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, the Danes often point at what is pompous and wasteful in the EU. Why does it need duplicate parliament buildings in Strasbourg, they ask, when there’s a perfectly lavish set-up in Brussels?
The country has even produced its own version of Nigel Farage. Jens-Peter Bonde co-founded the People’s Movement against the EU in 1972 and served as an MEP from 1978-2008. While not quite as abrasive as Farage, he did spend his time at the European Parliament honing phrases like ‘Democracy was born in Europe and buried in the EU council and commission”.
However, his party has not enjoyed as much electoral success as UKIP on the European stage, and now only has one MEP. Danes might agree with much of what Bonde, and even Farage, says. But they have found another way. There is no need for Dexit.
Indeed, if they needed any clearer sign of their brighter future inside the EU, Brexit has provided it. Brexit has shown the Danes it is hard to leave the EU well. Their support for staying in has never been greater. They realise the strengths of their own version of membership. Far enough in, far enough out. Probably the best EU deal in the world.
Mark Reid presented programmes on Europe for the BBC World Service and reported regularly from Denmark