COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Denmark voted on Thursday in a referendum to decide whether to adopt some European Union rules, the first test in 15 years of whether the nation wants to integrate further with the 28-member bloc or continue to keep its distance.
In a poll watched by British politicians, who are locked in battle concerning the future of that country’s own ties to the EU, Danes are asked to entrust parliament to opt in to some justice and home affairs rules to help fight cross-border crime.
Denmark, Britain and Ireland all won various concessions from the EU in the early 1990s when the modern foundation for the now 28-member bloc was laid, including exemptions from rules governing EU justice and home affairs policies.
The referendum asks whether the Danish parliament should have the authority to adopt some of those laws to stay within the cross-border policing agency Europol. The Danish government and the main opposition party both say it should.
But the populist Danish People’s Party (DF), now the second-largest faction in parliament, says Danes should vote “No” to retain a hard-fought-for exemption won in 1993 and avoid giving away sovereignty over security to eurocrats in Brussels.
A “No” victory would cheer Britain’s anti-EU UK Independence Party, which wants a total withdrawal from the EU. But British Prime Minister David Cameron could point to it as a sign other nations are also unhappy with the EU as it stands. He is trying to renegotiate Britain’s relations with the EU, before holding a referendum by 2017 on whether to remain a member.
Polls show Danish opinion split evenly with a large portion of people undecided, reflecting uncertainty over the issue. Analysts say the “Yes” campaign has been lacklustre while the “No” side had a much simpler message of rejection.
By asking Danes to hand over to parliament authority to decide on which EU rules to adopt, rather than seeking approval from the people of the 22 acts that are slated for adoption, the referendum has sown distrust and confusion, analysts say.
And by rejecting on principle the idea of giving more sovereignty to the EU, the “No” camp, represented by DF, has forced many voters to think in broader terms about EU integration rather than the technical issue of remaining within Europol.
“I think it’s important we don’t give up our sovereignty,” said 25-year-old “No” voter Lea Sommer Holmberg at Copenhagen’s city hall. “It’s important power stays with the people so politicians cannot just do what they want.”
By contrast, others point to the size of the Nordic country of 5.5 million people, which has also shunned the euro, like Britain, but pegged its own crown to the single currency to keep its export-driven economy stable.
“Denmark is a small and lovely country and we need to take care of its best interests. And because we are a small country, we need some bigger friends,” said Steen Boring, a man in his 60s who voted “Yes” as polls opened at Copenhagen’s city hall.
The vote comes amid heightened security fears across Europe after attacks in Paris, claimed by Islamic State militants, killed 130 people, and as Europe struggles with a huge influx of refugees from Syria and other countries.
Denmark needs to adopt some EU rules because of reform of Europol 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 laws that Denmark would opt into if the vote is “Yes”.
All have stressed the acts do not concern immigration, another part of the Justice and Home Affairs policy from which Denmark is exempt. That means it does not, for example, have to participate in schemes to resettle refugees.
But DF says the referendum would allow future parliaments to opt in to future EU rules such as on immigration without conducting further plebiscites. Europol participation can be maintained through other treaties, the party says.
Sweden, one of Denmark’s neighbours, has taken the largest numbers of refugees per capita within the EU and Germany, another neighbour, has taken the largest total number.
Denmark has so far been relieved it is considered merely a transit nation for many migrants, but suggestions that one Paris attacker may have come to Europe disguised as a refugee has sharpened anti-EU rhetoric in some camps in Denmark.
Additional reporting by Annabella Nielsen; Editing by Larry King