2 December 2015

Tomorrow, eyes will be on Denmark for its upcoming referendum on whether to replace its full opt-out from EU justice and home affairs cooperation with an ‘opt-in’ model, as the Danish government calls it, while others have called it moving to “a partial opt-out”.

Importantly, even if the Danes were to vote ‘Yes’ to dropping the full opt-out, the Danish government will not participate to the EU’s joint asylum and immigration policies, as was agreed by five Danish political parties. Instead, the country would join 22 specific EU legislative acts.

In the light of the precedent of Germany and the EU forcing Central and Eastern European countries to take in refugees, centre-right Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen has promised to submit any plan to join EU asylum and immigration policies to a referendum. However, the ‘No’ camp have suggested that this is only a promise and that if the Danish people vote to end the full opt-out, the Danish Parliament will be able to avoid a referendum on participating in EU asylum and migration cooperation if there is a simple majority for it, instead of a five-sixths majority now. This is quite significant. Right now, almost two-thirds of Danish MPs support a ‘Yes’ vote, while voters are equally split on the issue.

In any case, the main reason for the Danish government to hold this referendum is that EU legislation covering Europol has become supranational, following the Lisbon Treaty. Some of those campaigning for Denmark to give up its full opt-out, for example the Social Democrats, have  argued that “in order to fight cross-border crime, such as child pornography and human trafficking, we need to remain part of Europol cooperation”. One of their posters, which plays up fears that it would become harder to fight paedophile networks if Danish voters were to keep the opt-out, seems to have backfired, after it was branded by a Danish author who is also a paedophile victim as “distasteful”.

Others, like the Eurosceptic Danish People’s Party (DF), have argued that a “No” vote does not even necessarily exclude Denmark from Europol, as a “parallel agreement” would allow continued participation.

What is the relevance for the UK referendum?

If the Danes vote to keep the opt-out, the reaction of the rest of the EU will be telling: will we see a flexible EU, which respects the decision of the Danes and is happy to conclude a deal specifically designed for them or will we see an inflexible EU, which refuses further debate and kicks Denmark out of Europol? We should remember how the EU has so far been very reluctant to negotiate with Switzerland after a majority decided in a referendum that there should be limits on the freedom of movement of people. The reaction of the EU institutions to a possible Danish no-vote will be yet another element convincing the middle ground in the UK whether it’s possible to reform the EU or not.

Most polls show that around one third of Danes are not sure how to vote, while the yes- and no-sides are neck and neck. Cameron may be helped or hindered in different ways by any possible result. As said, a no-vote may help his renegotiation as it may focus minds in Brussels that it’s not just the UK which is keen to insert some flexibility into the EU. On the other hand,  if the Danes were to vote ‘Yes’, this could perhaps make the referendum campaign for Cameron a little easier, as no-votes on the Continent could well embolden the Leave-side in the UK. In the end though, the easiest referendum campaign for Cameron would be one which is preceded by the UK obtaining material concessions and perhaps negotiators in Brussels can do with a small wake-up call from Danish voters.