50 years of EU membership - did the Danes ever become European?

, by August Lund Felumb, Jakob Konrad Kjeldsen Wind

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

50 years of EU membership - did the Danes ever become European?
Credits: Europæisk Ungdom Danmark.

Few Danes probably remember the 2nd of October as a memorable date. Next year, however, they may have to be reminded. Because precisely on that day in 2022 the Danish people voted to join the European Union, fifty years ago. Among the pro-EU organisations, this jubilee will of course be a celebratory event. It is hard, however, to imagine that the majority of Danes will join the celebration choir. But why will this event, which provided the breeding ground for decades of prosperity and opportunities for Denmark, probably not spark a blaze amongst Danes?

To understand this better, it is important to take a look at the history of the kingdom in the north. Denmark has suffered some major blows within the last 200 years. Denmark used to be a medium-powered European state but experienced some knocks to this status: first, by losing Norway after 400 years of joint union; and secondly losing the now northern German states of Schleswig and Holstein in 1864. Both events became catalysts for an inward-looking perspective on foreign policy, with Denmark becoming a manikin for the European state. The now very homogenous state cultivated national romanticism and strengthened the cohesion of an extremely strong collective Danish identity. The main task of the state was to protect the Danish people against foreign interference, especially against our neighbour to the south. This became especially terminal during the Nazi occupation of Denmark (1940-45) where politicians had one primary goal through cooperation with the Nazi regime: keeping the idea of Danish statehood alive.

Sovereignty and the Danish constitution

The post-war period, however, changed everything. Denmark became a key player in the establishment of the UN, the Council of Europe and NATO, although these came with major reservations. In the constitutional change of 1953, an important paragraph was added to the constitution which would haunt Denmark’s role in the EU in the decades to come. Section 20 states that sovereignty can only be transferred to an international body if the competences which are handed over are clearly specified. Moreover, there must be either a 5/6 majority in parliament or a binding referendum to settle the issue.

To this day, Denmark remains the EU member state with the most referendums on EU treaties, surpassed only by Ireland. This also has to do with the fact that Denmark always conceives sovereignty as a zero-sum game: the literal Danish translation of transferring sovereignty is to surrender sovereignty, meaning that when you transfer legislative power to supranational institutions you lose power while someone else gains it. This very unfortunate constitutional mechanism has led to a framing of the EU debate in Denmark which is always about something being taken away from the Danes when in reality the EU may want to pool sovereignty to solve new challenges together. During the 1992 Maastricht Treaty referendum for example, the People’s Movement Against the EU (a left-wing movement founded in 1972) printed some alarming campaigning posters showing children saying, “When I grow up, I want to be Danish”.

But at what price?

In our view however, the Danish view on sovereignty is not only extremely outdated, but it also prevents Denmark from being a progressive player on the European scene. A good example is the four opt-outs we acquired when the Danes voted no to the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. When looking at those today, they display a strange approach to the cost-benefits of sovereignty. For instance, due to free movement, potential criminals can travel across borders freely, but Denmark cannot help the police combat these efficiently, due to the justice and home affairs opt-out. Denmark does not have access to databases with criminals nor is it able to get funding to fight crime because we only have a parallel, or special agreement, on Europol. Instead, we waste one billion Danish Kroner annually on border control – running six years in a row now. Furthermore, this essentially means that we have to follow the rules of the agreement but have no say on changes to it. This illustrates the enormous hypocrisy when it comes to the Danish view on sovereignty, because the intention is to keep legislative power in the hands of the Danish Parliament to protect Danish democracy. At the same time, our many parallel agreements with the EU make it so that we still have to follow EU legislation without any influence as a rule-taker, not a rule-maker. We seem to cling so hard to the word “sovereignty” that we are so often blinded by it. The idea of sovereignty is very complicated to grasp and often ends up in very technical discussions of ‘transferrals of Danish sovereignty’, losing sight of the overall substance.

It is in many ways grotesque that in order to preserve a fairy-tale kind of sovereignty we end up losing it. Because in a globalised world and with a borderless Europe, it is deluded to think that Denmark can continue playing this zero-sum game of sovereignty. Being the only country in the EU which has not fundamentally reformed our constitution in light of European integration, we have instead increasingly side-lined ourselves.

Future prospects

But where does this leave Denmark in the EU today? To put it simply, we are not in a great position. Let us put this clearly: The Danes support the EU – after Brexit more than ever - and generally know how much they benefit from access to the single market. At the same time, a majority still overwhelmingly support maintaining the opt-outs as it looks now. We are also part of the feared ‘frugal four’, insisting on a smaller EU budget, a position supported by almost all parties in parliament. Our social democratic prime minister Mette Frederiksen insists that the opt-outs are the bedrock of our EU policy. She has also been dubbed the most EU-sceptic prime minister in history. No wonder then, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations, Denmark has placed itself at the very bottom of the so-called “call list”, a list indicating which country is most likely to be approached by other member state capitals when new ideas are launched in the EU. We have for many years been, and will probably continue to be, a foot-dragging member state on the periphery of EU integration.

However, prospects for change may also be visible in the near future. The Covid-19 pandemic has created a breeding ground for more integration in various policy areas. The foundation for a European health union is at this moment being forged in the Berlaymont building. Furthermore, a fiscal union may – with the new German government - become a reality with a certain degree of common debt. Unfortunately, none of these ideas and ambitions are supported by Denmark, yet will have an enormous influence on us. However, not everything is bleak. More parties now, among the entire political spectrum in parliament, support a referendum on removing our opt-out on the Common Security and Defence Policy and a new Europe Agreement, on which JEF Denmark hopefully will set a major footprint, may also change the current state of affairs.

But we won’t see champagne bottles everywhere at next year’s celebration. Perhaps a Carlsberg may do the job.

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