Denmark’s Golden Anniversary

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For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Dr Helene Dyrhauge, from Roskilde University, in Denmark.

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In January 1973, almost fifty years ago, Denmark became a member of the European Economic Community, as it was called at the time. It was the Community’s very first enlargement! How does the country think about this anniversary?

Denmark has always had a rational view of the EU, focusing on the benefits of the memberships – mainly the benefits of the single Market. The political dimension and ideational discussions about the future of the EU have never been important for the EU debate in Denmark.

As a matter of fact, Denmark joined the EU because of the UK and it’s a standing joke that Denmark mainly wanted to protect its export of bacon and therefore follow the UK into the EU. Clearly, there was an economic rationale for joining.

However, is was not the same the other way round, though: there were no major public discussions of a possible Danish exit following the Brexit referendum. Some of the right-wing parties did try to drum up support for an all-in-or-out referendum, but the public and the major parties continue to value the economic benefits of being part of the EU.

This economic understanding of the EU and the integration process became problematic during the flurry of treaty changes and political integration steps over the 1980s and 1990s.


Yes, we remember the Danes rejecting the Maastricht Treaty and obtaining some “opt-outs”. Can you quickly recall how that worked out?

Yes, it was a close referendum in 1992: 50,7% said no and 49,3 said yes. The result sent shockwaves through all member states.

The political parties started looking at ways for Denmark to remain in the EU. They came up with the “national compromise”, which identified 4 problematic policies, and the Danish government asked the other member states for an opt-out of the treaty. This resulted in the so-called Edinburgh Agreement where Denmark obtained its 4 opt-outs: The Euro, the Union citizenship, Justice and Home Affairs, and Defence.

Oddly, there has almost always been a substantial support for overall EU membership: opinion polls even show an increase in support overtime, but this public support vanishes once you start to discuss the different policy fields.


And what has happened to the opt-outs over the years?

The Union citizenship was removed in the Amsterdam Treaty, so it is no longer relevant. For the others, all Danish governments since 1992 have wanted to remove them. Although the political parties all have a central policy towards EU membership, many of the parties have internal disagreements about their support for the EU. This was evident in the Euro referendum in 2000, and the Justice and Home Affairs referendum in 2015. The electorate said “no” to removing the opt-outs on both occasions.

As a result, politicians and governments seem to have accepted the electorate’s decisions and there are currently no more discussions about joining the Euro.


And what about the defence issue?

Like others, Denmark has mainly focused on NATO instead of EU defence corporation. Well, at least until the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which led to a discussion about national security and Danish defence cooperation. Many Danes were concerned about security, especially in the Baltic Sea, and the government held a referendum about the defence opt-out, where 66,9% voted yes to remove the opt-out. Which is a big support and clearly reflects the concerns about national security following the war in Ukraine.


Ukraine asked for EU membership. What was the Danish position on central and eastern European countries joining the EU?

Denmark was a big supporter of the democratisation process in Central and Eastern Europe. At the time, the foreign minister Uffe Ellemann Jensen, championed the Baltic countries’ membership of both NATO and the EU. He was one of the first foreign government representatives to visit the newly sovereign states.

In 1993, Denmark held the rotating council presidency, when the member states decided to accept the application from the 10 Central and Eastern European countries and adopted the three Copenhagen criteria, which are now written into the Lisbon Treaty. The first criterium about democracy, rule of law and protection of minorities, has become even more important in the meantime, especially in terms of the internal discussion of democratic backsliding in certain member states.


How do you see the future of Denmark’s EU membership?

In general, I think Denmark will continue its pragmatic approach, focusing on the economic benefits of its membership.

But the energy transition is also very important for Denmark. It sees itself as a climate leader and has a strong green energy technology, which is pushing the energy transition at home. So, Denmark is likely to continue to push the green transition agenda at the EU level.


Ideas on Europe will be back next week, and we will look at another of these anniversaries.

Interview by Laurence Aubron.