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Eurosceptic Hyperbole? The Danish Opt-Out Referendum and what this Could Mean for the Future of the

Further integration in the EU, both horizontally and vertically, seems to have come to a standstill. After the recent attacks in Paris there are whispers of dismay concerning border sovereignty and increased immigration. The European project, as it is, seems to be in a state of anguish. At least, that is what the media makes out. Scratch under the surface, however, and the picture changes.

The Danes are the closest of the Scandinavian countries to the EU. They are EU members, having joined the EU in 1973 (though, they refused to adopt the Euro through one of four opt-outs after rejecting the initial terms of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992). Instead, they maintain a strict currency peg through the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM II) and are thus closely linked to the EU’s economic and political performance.

As a result of this more flexible arrangement with the EU, Danish involvement has undergone some strain in recent times. The 2014 EU parliament elections resulted in the conservative Danish People’s Party (DF) candidate, Morten Messerschmidt, winning a landslide election and claiming four of their 13 seats. This represented a substantial shift towards a populist euro-sceptic position, with Messerschmidt actively advocating dismantling the European Parliament. This was then followed by another surprising landslide victory by DF and its conservative bloc partners in the Danish general elections in early 2015. This resulted in a conservative block majority. The recent turn of events in Denmark appear to follow a greater trend in the EU, with populist right parties in the Netherlands, Poland, France, and the UK (to name but a few) also establishing a solid euro-sceptic position during the 2014 elections.

However, what is little talked about outside Denmark is a recent referendum held on 3 December to vote on whether or not Denmark should change its opt-out option (with respect to the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs policies) to an opt-in style agreement. This referendum – argued to have been pushed forward by Denmark’s PM Lars Rasmussen to avoid coinciding with the UK's upcoming Brexit referendum – signals one of the first significant steps towards greater integration for Denmark since their rejection of the Maastricht Treaty. Interestingly, it also appears to have had broad bipartisan support, with only three (DF, Liberal Alliance, and the Red-Green Alliance) of Denmark’s eight major parties publically against it.

In the lead up to the referendum, it remained too close to call but the polls generally gave a slight lead to the no vote. Even with this lead in the polls, it came as a bit of a surprise to many yes voters that the outcome was a resounding no with 53% of voters deciding against the changes.

It is over-simplistic, however, to believe that this no vote signals a withdrawal from the EU, founded in euro-scepticism. Rather, the no vote should be considered as a vote for the continuation of the current intergovernmental arrangements between the EU and Denmark, similar to the Norwegian model.

This point is important, particularly since intergovernmental positions within the EU also attract the same label of euro-scepticism. Pushes for intergovernmental arrangements with the EU are not without historical precedence. In fact, most academics who study EU integration are familiar with Andrew Moravcsik’s work on liberal intergovernmentalism. Arguably one of the EU’s most historically consistent theories on integration, championed by France, its antithesis is a German-led federal style EU. Practically speaking, expressions of euro-scepticism and intergovernmentalism are not at all anti-EU. Rather, they represent a desire for EU institutions to exist in tandem with existing national political bodies as a forum for facilitating greater diplomatic efficiency.

It is this desire to maintain independent political bodies as opposed to developing a federalised EU that defines liberal intergovernmentalism. At present, it seems to be the dominant paradigm driving Danish attitudes. The extreme position of Messerschmidt appears to be an outlier, with DF officially specifying an intergovernmental EU as opposed to a federal one.

As such, the political anguish that seems to grip EU reporting in the media reflects EU-level political wrangling about the best way to structure the EU, as opposed to a pressing existential threat. This is a perfectly normal phenomenon in any political body, and one that should be encouraged in the name of democracy. What the Danish no vote is not, however, is a call to dismember the institutions that now define Europe, nor is it a sign of apathy or disenfranchisement from the people of Denmark or Europe.

Joshua Brown has recently completed a combined Bachelor of Arts and Economics through the University of Tasmania. He has a keen interest in European integration and is now based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image Credit: Håkan Dahlström (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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