LONDON (Reuters) - If there is a lesson for Prime Minister David Cameron from Denmark’s ‘No’ vote, it may be that complacency could allow Britain to drop out of the European Union when voters decide on membership in a referendum likely next year.
Denmark’s voters ignored advice from politicians, business leaders and the media, and said “No” to more EU laws aimed at fighting cross-border crime, underscoring a broader disenchantment across Europe after years of crisis and sluggish economic growth.
Cameron faces a harder task than Denmark’s elite. He must convince 27 other EU leaders to grant him a deal and then sell that package to voters who polls show are jaded by EU crises over everything from Greece to an influx of migrants.
“The Danish referendum shows you cannot be complacent: You can’t as a political elite say ‘Ah yes, this is in the bag’ because it is not, certainly in Britain,” said Sara Hobolt, professor of European Institutions at the London School of Economics’ European Institute.
Hobolt, who is from Denmark, said the referendum showed how views of the mainstream elite could not be relied upon to sway voters. She added that she would not bet money on the British referendum as the outcome was still far from clear.
A divorce between Britain and the EU would shake, and could possibly sink, the 28-country Union, ripping away its second largest economy and one of its top two military powers.
Britain’s future is also at stake. Some pro-Europeans warn an exit from the EU would hurt the economy and could prompt another vote on Scottish independence. Opponents of EU membership say Britain would prosper outside and that warnings from pro-Europeans are overblown.
European Council President Donald Tusk said on Thursday that a discussion with Cameron at an EU summit this month should pave the way for a deal in February, opening up the possibility of a referendum from around mid-year.
Tusk, who is leading the EU negotiations with Britain, also wrote on Twitter that he would send a letter to national leaders on Monday with his assessment of the British negotiations.
Cameron is betting the fear of Britain leaving the bloc will focus the minds of other EU leaders so that he can get the deal he thinks he can sell to British voters and his own party.
But some diplomats caution that although German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants Britain to stay, Cameron has previously misjudged her appetite and capacity to sway the entire bloc behind Britain’s demands.
Cameron, who opposes any further transfer of sovereignty to the EU and says voters are unhappy with the current state of affairs, is demanding that EU migrants should contribute for four years to Britain’s social security system before they qualify for in-work benefits or social housing.
This is proving an extremely difficult demand and has worried Berlin and other EU capitals as Cameron has repeatedly hinted that he could oppose membership if he doesn’t get what he wants, diplomats close to the talks said.
Cameron said on Friday that he was “fighting like mad” to get the substance right and British officials dismissed any sense of complacency, pointing to some of the involvement of Britain’s senior politicians and officials in the negotiations.
“The chances of Brexit (Britain leaving the EU) have gone up because there is a small chance - small but greater than zero - that there won’t be a deal because Cameron asks for something the rest of the EU cannot give him,” said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think-tank.
“If Cameron can’t get a deal then he can’t recommend Britain stays in and in that case Britain would vote to leave the EU.”
If Cameron does win a deal, he still needs to pitch it to a public which, like Denmark’s, is worried about immigration and sceptical about both the political elite and the EU itself, though he has the benefit of arguing for the status quo.
“In terms of the British debate, framing what an ‘in’ means or what an ‘out’ means is entirely up in the air,” said Hobolt, who added that perceptions of the EU in Britain were volatile.
An opinion poll published after Islamist militants killed 130 people in Paris, showed that more than half of Britons would vote to leave the European Union.
A source familiar with Britain’s talks to renegotiate ties to the EU said the result did not bode well for Britain’s continued EU membership, adding fear of losing control of immigration was crucial: “The same factor, the same fear.”
“The tide in Europe is turning against the European Union,” Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, which opposes EU membership, said of the result in Denmark.
“It is wonderful to see a political establishment stitch-up be knocked back so emphatically and hopefully our British equivalent will suffer a similar fate.”
Editing by Peter Millership