Denmark votes ‘no’ on EU referendum for further integration

It is a no, again. On Thursday, December 3, 2015, Danish people voted for an “opt-in” referendum on whether to join (or not) the European Union policy on Justice and Home Affairs. With 53 percent of votes, the ‘no’ camp won over the ‘yes’ one.

By Anna Ferrari

The referendum was about the acceptance of 22 existing European Union legislative acts, which would have made the Danish membership in the EU more homogenous in comparison to the other member States, and continuing Europol cooperation. If the ‘yes’ would have won, the politicians in the Danish Parliament would have been allowed to discuss how they want to shape those issues. Without the green light from the population, the process has stopped.

The background of this referendum dates back to 1992, when the Maastricht Treaty was signed. The Maastricht Treaty was one of the most important steps in the European Union integration, but Denmark, showing its euro-skepticism, decided to opt-out. The opt-out is a tool used not to join the further integration with other EU member States.

Later, with the Agreement of Edinburgh, ratified in 1993, Denmark negotiated to stay in the EU, but with four exemptions on the EU sectors of Euro, Defense, EU citizenship, and Justice and Home Affairs (the last two ones were objects of the recent referendum).

What were the main arguments pro ‘yes’ or ‘no’?

The ‘yes’ vote: a security issue

The ‘yes’ side was led by the actual Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen from the right-wing Venstre Party, together with the opposition party of the Social Democrats. The ‘yes’ campaign stressed the argument based on Europol.

Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen on the ads for the referendum

Europol is the European Union’s agency that assists the cooperation among EU member States to fight international crime and terrorism. It makes it easier and quicker to track down and catch criminals all across the EU, thanks to cross-border investigations and network. Denmark is already part of the Europol, because so far Europol has had an intergovernmental shape. Some time ago, however, the European Commission proposed to strengthen Europol by transforming it from an intergovernmental organization to a supranational cooperation within the EU’s joint judicial and policing policies. One of the main fears about a ‘no’ vote is that Denmark would lose this cooperation, because this area is inside the Justice and Home Affairs policy. According to the ‘yes side’, it was one of the principal reasons for Denmark to give up this exemption.

On Monday, November 30, the Prime Minister was the main guest of a public debate at the Student House in Aarhus. He was very resolute and indeed talked mainly about security problems. He said that Europol is useful to defeat crimes against children such as pedophilia or to sue better companies that come to Denmark to trade and then leave without paying. He had an extremely down-to-earth approach: he was pointing out that joining the EU policy on these particular issues is useful for Danes and listing all the benefits that Denmark can get out of it.

The ‘no’ vote: a grip on sovereignty

The ‘no’ side, represented by the Danish People’s Party and the Red-Green Alliance, argued that they can keep having Europol and the other most relevant benefits through a separate agreement, thus there is no need to join the EU policy on Justice and Home Affairs. They are mostly concerned about not giving up any piece of Danish sovereignty to the European Union. They say that they do not want to be in the situation of being committed to accept rules decided in Brussels, therefore, they do not want Denmark to join EU policies that are common to all the Member States. They want Denmark to be its own decision maker, always.

Flyers from the 'no' campaign. The EU should not have power on our Justice policy and no more power to the EU, they say.

Flyers from the “no” campaign. The EU should not have power on our Justice policy and no more power to the EU, they say.

A campaign played on emotions

Critics have been filling the debate. Many complained that the ‘yes’ campaign tried to engage only people’s emotions, for example, scaring with pedophilia and security arguments and neglecting deeper explanations on what the referendum was really about.

On the other hand, also the ‘no’ campaign did not play fair. The referendum question was very technical and included, besides Europol, cross-border cases in family law, civil disputes between citizens and companies, EU cooperation on asylum and immigration. However, during the campaign, the ‘no’ parties have presented the referendum as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the European Union as a whole. They mainly made it appear as a dislike vote of the whole European Union project.

The problem is that, actually, the referendum is not at all about the EU membership of Denmark. It is not an ‘in-out’ referendum as the one taking place next year in the United Kingdom.

Moreover, both of the sides used recent events to enforce their arguments, but in a somewhat deceptive interpretation. The ‘yes’ party used the ‘Paris attacks’ as a proof that Denmark needs this kind of stronger cooperation on police and security. The ‘no’ side, instead, exploited the refugee crisis, saying that if Denmark joins this time, in the future will be obliged to accept EU refugees quotas.

A stand still or a step back?

Denmark is a small country among all the EU member State, characterized by one of the highest life quality standards, thanks especially to its strong welfare State system. Among the EU members, Denmark has traditionally been very cautious on the EU integration. In fact, it has historically experienced a large euroscepticism. One of the reasons is that many Danish citizens are worried that, due to its small size, Denmark will not have much influence in the decision-making inside the EU institutions, thus being possibly no longer in command of its own territory.

Another argument is that EU topics are not easily understood by most of the population. This is true also for young people, who represents the future of the nation.

“People of my age, even the ones interested in politics, find the EU too complicated and cannot figurate out why Denmark would be better at doing things in the EU than on its own”, tells Henrik Nielsen, high school student at his last year and president of the Europæisk Ungdom in Aarhus (Young European Federalists).

The lack of a clear understanding of the referendum’s questions, together with strong doubts on how the ‘yes’ campaign was held, are probably the reasons behind the ‘no’.

'Yes' campaign in Copenhagen

‘Yes’ campaign in Copenhagen

On the other side, on the long run it is not clear whether opting-out is beneficial either, because it means that Denmark is excluded, by its own choice, when it comes to take common decisions for the whole European Union.

After the ‘no’ win, Denmark remains outside the EU policy on Justice and Home Affairs, so the situation seems apparently like before. In reality, however, it is not completely clear what it will happen.

In fact, probably Denmark, as it is, cannot be part of Europol anymore. Therefore, it will need to renegotiate some terms with the EU on a parallel agreement, but this process takes time and, anyway, should not be taken for granted. The EU Commission, in fact, can deny the request on such individual agreements, and in the past already had.

On the EU side, Denmark’s behavior can seem selfish, as it looks like it only wants to receive the benefits without getting involved.

The outcome is also important because it could influence the development of the UK referendum next year and the chances for the British government to renegotiate more advantageous terms with the EU. Moreover, it can become an easy argument for eurosceptic parties in other member States to strengthen their anti-EU campaigns.

Whatever side one decides to take, it is hard to avoid the question about which is the sense for Denmark to be part of the EU, if it always opts out. From the point of view of the development of the EU project, the outcome of this referendum actually seems like a step back, both for the European Union as a whole and Denmark as a member State.