COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - The European Union, strained by a refugee crisis, security fears and popular disenchantment after years of economic doldrums, suffered another blow on Thursday when Danes voted to reject just a small step to further integrate with the bloc.
Together with Britain and Ireland, Danes have long enjoyed several exemptions from EU laws dating from the 1990s when the modern foundation of the 28-member bloc was laid. Despite that, most mainstream politicians advised the Scandinavian country to adopt some more EU laws to help fight cross-border crime.
But a bungled “Yes” campaign that got mired in complicated details was trumped by a simple message from the populist Danish People’s Party (DF) which said Danes should neither give up hard-fought-for exemptions nor give away sovereignty over security to “Eurocrats” in Brussels.
With all the votes counted, the “No” camp won 53.1 percent against 46.9 percent to the “Yes” camp with a turnout of 72 percent, which was higher than expected.
“The Danes know that when things are left to Brussels, they’re left a long way away in a non-transparent system where we lose a lot of our democracy,” DF leader Kristian Dahl Thulesen said after most of the votes had been counted.
Such sentiment reflects a growing scepticism within the 28-member bloc as Brussels struggles to deal with problems ranging from Greece teetering on bankruptcy, a massive refugee crisis and the spread of attacks linked to Islamic militants.
The “No” victory will cheer Britain’s UK Independence Party, which wants a total withdrawal, or a “Brexit”, from the EU as well as other far-right factions such as the French National Front leader Marine Le Pen.
“The Danish ‘No’ to Europe is a massive boost for the Brexit campaign in Britain as well as Marine Le Pen and other political forces who want to see Europe revert to closed nation-states based on economic protectionism and nation-first rejection of cooperating with other EU member states and, sadly at times, open xenophobia,” said Denis MacShane, Britain’s former Europe minister.
But British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is trying to renegotiate Britain’s relations with the EU, before holding a referendum by 2017 on whether to remain a member, may point to it as a sign other countries are unhappy with the EU as it stands.
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 Danish vote comes amid heightened security fears across Europe after 130 people were killed in Paris in attacks claimed by Islamic State militants, and as Europe struggles with a huge influx of refugees from Syria and other countries.
Danes were told by the government that certain EU laws were needed to keep the country within the cross-border police agency, Europol. But instead of seeking approval for the 22 EU acts slated for adoption, Danes were instead asked to entrust to parliament the power to decide on such opt-ins.
That, analysts said, made it easy for the “No” camp to play on Danish distrust of politicians.
“It has been easy to create insecurity about what would happen with a ‘Yes’ vote because what was on the menu was giving parliament a wider frame to involve Denmark in the EU,” Aarhus University Professor Rune Stubager told Reuters.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, the leader of a minority government that backed the “Yes” campaign despite relying on the DF for their support on other policies, was sanguine.
“I don’t consider this as a step back. The Danes have refused to take a step forward,” he told journalists. “The reasons why Danes refused to chose what we proposed is probably that there’s this feeling of uncertainty given the fact that Europe is right now faced with other major problems which we haven’t really solved.”
Additional reporting by Erik Matzen, Annabella Nielsen in Copenhagen and Paul Taylor in Brussels; writing by Sabina Zawadzki; editing by Alison Williams and G Crosse