The Danish referendum campaign – a fact finding mission without visions?

Helene Dyrhauge |

The Danish electorate has rejected an opt-in agreement in EU justice and home affairs.  The Danish political elite, mainly the government and the other political parties, are currently trying to analyse the meaning of ‘No’ – does it mean no to the EU or just no to EU Justice & home affairs but yes to Europol or does it mean that the electorate does not trust their elected politicians. Whilst this soul searching is taking place it might be worth reflecting on the election campaign.

The campaign focused on details, the specific 22 laws[i] and their content, where politicians and experts debated to how the implementation of these would influence Danish self-determination. This static picture of the EU did not facilitate a broader debate about Denmark’s future relationship with the EU and the politicians’ visions for a future development of EU Justice and Home Affairs. The campaign revealed a more critical issue, a lack of trust in politicians especially regarding keeping their promises and representing the Danish voters at the EU level. Perhaps the media’s increased focus on fact checking politicians’ argument has facilitated this process.

Detektor[ii], a TV programme on DR (the public broadcaster), checks facts and figures in current affairs, here it investigates to what extent ministers, politicians, other persons who influence public opinion including the media are factual correct and whether their arguments can be documented. There were seven such programmes during the referendum campaign. For example, one programme looked at the government’s promise not to allow EU asylum rules through the back door. The programme concluded that legally the referendum did not exclude EU asylum rules but that there was no reason not to trust the politicians’ agreement and promise. Indeed, since the four opt-outs from the Maastricht Treaty various governments have respected the electorate’s decision, thus there are no suggestions that the current government or indeed future governments would negate on this promise, but it is a question of trust, whether the electorate trust the politicians they have elected to represent them.

Another central issue was the no campaign’s argument that Denmark can get a parallel agreement and be included in Europol. Ironically, the core argument by the no camp was the perennial debate about loss of sovereignty however this does not seem to matter when it comes to Europol! Somehow it is perfectly acceptable to hand over sovereignty to issues relating to Europol without the opportunity to have any influence on the direction of EU police cooperation, but it is not acceptable to have an opt-in policy where Denmark decides which aspects of EU police cooperation it wants to participate in and has the opportunity to influence.

The no camp’s demand for a parallel agreement with regards to Europol is at the core of the debate between the government and the other political parties in the aftermath of the referendum result. Everyone agrees that Denmark needs to be part of the EU police cooperation. However, none of the other 27 member states who decide if Denmark can have a parallel agreement have commented on the Danish request whilst the Commission, before the result, had referred to the agreement in the Lisbon Treaty where Denmark has negotiated an opt-in policy. Thus, it is still unclear if Denmark is allowed to get a parallel agreement.

Overall, public debates about the EU are generally based on norms and values whether you support more or less EU. Here sovereignty becomes important and as this referendum showed the lack of trust in the political elite influenced the electorate’s decision in the ballot box.  During the campaign, I participated in a radio programme where listeners phoned in and asked questions about the referendum.  Many of the listeners wanted to know in greater details the content of the 22 laws which were on the ballot paper, and a number of them supported these laws[iii]. Simultaneously many listeners were concerned with giving the politicians a ‘carte blanche’ and what that would entail in the future – more EU integration and what kind of integration. This clearly feeds into a debate about trust and visions for Denmark’s relationship with the EU, and visions for the EU in general, but the campaign left little room for this normative discussion.

Currently the Danish government is trying to identify Denmark’s future position on EU Justice and Home Affairs, a central part of this process includes engaging with the other political parties but this is happening behind closed doors in the Prime Minister’s office.  The next few weeks should be interesting for domestic Danish politics, the Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen is trying to find a solution to the No vote and the Minister for Immigration, Integration and Housing, Inger Støjberg, is trying to push through new stricter rules for asylum seekers and refugees. In the meantime in Bruxelles, the EU and its member states are also concerned with solving the asylum issue but at EU level, whilst also discussing European solutions to combatting terrorism. Moreover, there is still the Brexit question to be solved as well.

[iii] These legal questioned were answered by a fellow panellist Dr. Henning Bang Fuglesang Madsen Sørensen from South Denmark University, who is a legal expert in the Danish opt-out on the JHA.