What can we learn from the Danish referendum?

Lying Eurosceptics and grey drizzle; close polls and an air of dread amongst Liberals fearing a No vote; and political elites pitted against voters who don’t trust them. Sound like a British Euro Referendum campaign? Well no, that was Denmark last week.

Now that we know that there was a narrow victory for the No side, let’s look at why and what it might mean for the forthcoming UK Euro referendum. And what we can learn from it as Liberal Democrats.

I’ll start with the differences. First, the proposition was unclear to many in Denmark. A November 3rd poll indicated that almost two-thirds of the population didn’t really understand what they were voting about. This absence of clarity has allowed the No campaign to reframe the debate as an airing of grievances against the EU in general.

The Danes joined the EU in 1973 at the same time as the UK and Ireland. Like the UK, they’ve remained a little sceptical. They delivered a warning shot to the European project in 1992 by rejecting the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum. This led to opt-outs (yes, they like opt outs too) including on Home and Justice Affairs, and a Yes vote in a repeat Maastricht referendum in 1993.

Currently the opt outs allow immigration controls while remaining part of Europol.  The 2009 Lisbon Treaty, however, means that next year Europol will become a supra-national agency. Denmark will only be a part of it if they scrap the opt-out (keep up.…)

Yes, it’s complex and not as black and white as our referendum will be. But, I think we can expect the same hijacking and reframing of the debate by the Out campaign.

Another difference relates to demographics. In the UK, young people tend to be more pro-EU; a Gallup poll found 41% of 18-24 Danish year olds planning to vote No versus 23% for yes with 47% for Yes and 34% for No amongst the over 60s. We need to ensure that our young people are sufficiently briefed and mobilised.

The Danes have had no fewer than 8 referendums since 1972 due to an unwieldy process which requires either a referendum or a 5/6 majority in Parliament for constitutional change (that’s no more likely in the fractious multi-party Danish parliament than it would be in Westminster).

But, of course, the Eurosceptics have sought to portray the debate quite differently. According to the No Campaign the Danes can retain the advantages of Europol co-operation etc with no drawbacks.

There has been a rather unholy alliance of left and right promoting a No vote whereas in the UK the Out campaign is likely to be dominated by the right. This has included promoting fears for Denmark’s liberal laws on equal marriage and LGBT rights from the left with fears for flows of refugees from the right.

The momentum of the campaign has been worrying. From a clear majority of 58% in favour when the referendum was announced, the polls got closer as polling day approached. The refugee crisis has dominated headlines, as in much of the rest of Europe, which has muddied the waters. The right-wing Danish People’s Party (who sit with the Tories in the European Parliament) has claimed that a Yes vote would risk losing control over immigration policy and require accepting obligatory EU refugee quotas

There is probably less than a year before we face our own referendum. The Danish Yes campaign has been lacklustre. We can’t change the whole referendum result but we can help to mobilise our own members and voters. We need to help them understand what’s at stake and ensure that  they can be relied on  to get out and vote with a resounding Yes. Presuming (I know…) that Cameron strikes an acceptable deal to put to the voters, we need to act as enthusiastic champions of EU membership benefits whilst keeping one eye on all that the Out campaign will throw at it.

* Siobhan Mathers is a former Policy Convener of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and a former target seat candidate.

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8 Comments

  • er, what were they voting for?

    or against…

  • Peter Davies 10th Dec '15 - 5:37pm

    Theoretically on reducing their opt-out on security and justice matters to make them the same as the UK. In practice people never vote on the question.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Dec '15 - 8:27pm

    This is a good article. My enthusiasm for the EU dropped a bit recently after growing more sceptical of our international affairs think tanks. Some of them seem stuffed with liberals/libertarians and it makes me wonder whether they think Britain should stay in the EU because it is best for us or because they personally like things like free movement.

    I’ve not done a quantitative analysis of the situation, it’s just my personal experience. As an individual I will still campaign to stay in the EU, but not as much as I would have before.

  • Lying Eurosceptics? Really? You have to resort to name calling? Of course pro EUers are pure and wear halos. Shall I mention some of them? Resorting to this sort of language shows fear.

  • The article and comments show how much there is to be done. The tide is certainly flowing against us at the moment. This years Sixth Formers are distinctly more Eurosceptic than last year. We need to understand how dynamic this debate is and the need to be making the case forcefully on our web site. We need to be giving the large net positive figure for the value of the EU to every one us every year – for every £1 spent on the EU we benefit by £10. The Chancellor makes a profit every year when one takes into account the taxes paid by EU workers in the UK and the additional revenues that flow from our economy being 5 – 10% bigger than it would otherwise have been – why can’t I even pin this number down? How are we supposed to convince people if we are not even making the case? The argument for the peace the EU has created is even more persuasive and irrefutable. NATO only keeps the peace for Europe vs. Russia and others externally. NATO could not stop Turkey invading Cyprus fighting the Greeks. NATO could not help in Northern Ireland or on the border of Spain and Gibralter and whilst it was NATO that stopped Serbian forces in the Balkans ( which was outside the EU) it is the EU which has made and is keeping the peace. 13 dictatorships have been successfully replaced by democratic governments. Let us hope that the New Year will bring clearer and more forceful messaging to replace the defense and rather apologetic case being made by the IN campaign.

  • Robert Wootton 13th Dec '15 - 3:59pm

    A full and effective membership of the EU depends on the establishment of Common Economic Operating System that would establish a cohesive and respectful social market economy amongst all the citizens of the EU.

    When the European Parliament establishes in law a Common Economic System and also specifies which decisions shall be made solely by the national governments of all member states and which decisions shall apply to the whole of the EU.
    How the EU principle of subsidiarity is applied must be specified

    Then would be the time for the UK and Denmark to adopt the Euro.

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