COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Danes will decide on Thursday whether to give parliament the power to “opt-in” to certain European Union police and justice policies in a referendum that the “No” campaign has turned into a vote against the 28-member bloc.
Danes rejected joining the euro against the advice of all mainstream parties in a 2000 referendum. This is the first time since then that one of the four so-called “opt-outs” from EU integration that Denmark won in 1993 is being put to a vote.
The government and large parties across the political aisle are urging Danes to let parliament adopt certain EU Justice and Home Affairs rules so that the country can remain within the region’s cross-border police agency, Europol.
But pollsters and pundits say the “Yes” campaign has been lacklustre while the populist Danish People’s Party (DF) has articulated a simple message of rejection of more EU power over the Nordic nation of 5.5 million people.
The vote comes as Europe struggles with the biggest refugee crisis since World War Two, straining the open-border Schengen zone amid fears of Islamist infiltration after militants linked to Islamic State in Syria killed 130 people in Paris attacks.
Polls show Danes are evenly split with some giving a small lead for the “No” campaign within the surveys’ margin of error. Some 20-30 percent of respondents are undecided, reflecting confusion and uncertainty surrounding the issue.
“The “Yes” camp has failed to really ask the fundamental question of where Denmark should place itself in the future of the EU,” said Marlene Wind, professor at the University of Copenhagen. “There’s no enthusiasm in the “Yes” camp at all; all they do is defend it as not being so bad.”
“That’s definitely to the “No” side’s advantage because people are completely alienated, have no clue what this is about. They’ll say this is too confusing ... let me either stay at home or say ‘No’.”
A “No” result would cheer Britain’s anti-EU UK Independence Party, which wants a total withdrawal from the EU. But British Prime Minister David Cameron could also point to it as a sign that other nations are unhappy with the EU as it stands today.
Cameron is trying to renegotiate Britain’s relations with the EU ahead of an in-out referendum by 2017. Denmark’s DF has said it would like to follow Britain’s approach of a renegotiation and referendum, should Cameron succeed.
Denmark needs to adopt some EU rules because of a reform of Europol that will change the way it receives and analyses data. The ruling centre-right Liberals, ex-ruling Social Democrats and several other parties agreed on 22 EU acts Denmark would opt in to if the vote is a “Yes”.
All have stressed the acts do not concern immigration — another part of the Justice and Home Affairs policy from which Denmark is exempt, meaning it does not, for example, have to participate in schemes to resettle refugees.
But, rather than asking Danes whether they want to adopt the 22 acts, the referendum seeks instead agreement from the people to allow parliament to decide on the opt-ins. And that raises trust issues which DF has exploited, analysts said.
“If it’s a “yes” on Thursday, we can wave goodbye to ever having controls at the border with police and customs officers without asking the EU for permission. More EU? NO THANKS!” cries one of the many DF posters in the campaign.
The “No” campaigns argues that Denmark can easily continue participation within Europol by striking parallel agreements, pointing to non-EU member Switzerland which also participates.
The minority Liberal government, which normally relies on DF support in parliament, has fallen out with the party, with Immigration Minister Inger Stojberg saying its campaign was “false, it’s dishonest and contributes to creating mistrust”.
But DF has played on Danes’ recent distrust of politicians, arguing there was no guarantee of another plebiscite should a government decide to extend the opt-in to immigration.
Writing by Sabina Zawadzki; Editing by Paul Taylor