You never know with referendums: a view from Denmark


The Danes have had eight EU referendums to date. Charlotte Antonsen, a veteran campaigner and former Danish MP, relates her experience of these and draws out lessons for the upcoming British campaign. This piece was originally published as part of the UCL European Institute’s first guest editor week on openDemocracy.

In Denmark we have had eight EU referendums in the last four decades. As a former member of the Danish parliament and EU spokesman from 1990 to 2007, I’ve been directly involved in planning and campaigning for four of them. Below I will share the lessons the UK may draw from this experience, and explain what happened in our last EU referendum in December, the rejection of which came as a big surprise to many.

Voters vote as they please

We have asked the Danes all kinds of different EU-questions. Each time the people have answered yes or no, but it wouldn’t be right to say that the Danes actually answered the question that was put to them on the ballot paper.

Only three months ago we had an EU referendum about freedom, security, and justice. It was about changing one of the Danish opt-outs to a voluntary opt-in model. The reason is that we will have to leave Europol next year if we don’t change the opt-out. So the idea was that the referendum should primarily be about Europol.

At the beginning of the campaign, the Eurosceptic parties had a problem: according to opinion polls almost everyone supported Europol. To solve the problem they changed their view on Europol from ‘no’ to ‘yes’, and then re-wrote their narrative so they could still advocate for a ‘no’ in the referendum. They used the argument ‘we want less EU’ and pointed their fingers at the 22 small EU-directives, mainly about cross-boarder business matters, that were also part of the referendum.

The no-argument was thus adjusted to the opinion polls: The new no-story said: ‘vote no at the referendum and stay in Europol. Who would want to throw Denmark out?’ They further argued, ‘we will just make another and better deal with the 27 EU-countries, the European Commission, and the European Parliament. No problem’.

This new story worked. A majority (53%) of the people voted no. And now we will have to leave Europol next year if nothing new happens. So far it hasn’t been possible for the Danish government to clear the EU negotiating table to make room for the Danish problem, as it is currently consumed with discussions on what to do with the refugee and migrant situation. At the referendum the Danes were asked about Europol, but they answered that they didn’t want 22 new EU directives!

More or less EU

No matter what we ask the public, the primary answer from the average no-voter has been that he or she wants ‘less EU’. It was the same when we voted on the Maastricht treaty in 1992. Those who voted no explained that they wouldn’t give up more sovereignty to the European community.

The year after, in May 1993, we voted on Maastricht again, but this time on the basis of four opt-outs negotiated in Edinburgh after the first no vote in 1992. The yes campaign explained that what was now on offer was no longer such a big step, and we promised new referendums on each opt-out if we were to change the Danish position. Then we got a yes, and the four opt-outs – the Euro, EU defence policy, internal affairs including Europol, ‘European’ citizenship – are still in operation more than 20 years later.

Lessons for the Remain campaign

What can the UK’s pro-EU campaigners learn from this latest Danish episode? One thing is sure about a referendum: you never know. No matter how well you plan, something unexpected can always pop up.

The outcome of a referendum therefore depends on the overall national picture, such as popularity of the politicians, what else is at the agenda, and a lot of other things tangential to the particular matter at hand. The simple truth is that, to the vast majority of the voters, EU matters aren’t very important and people don’t know much about the everyday politics of the EU.

1. Make it simple – it was a big mistake from the perspective of pro-EU campaigners in Denmark to vote on a new opt-in model, on Europol, and on 22 different directives all at the same time. We couldn’t even understand some of the other directives’ titles. The communication should have been more simple.

2. Focus the campaign – be concrete about what will happen if it’s a yes or a no. In the British case, the question regards being in or out of a ‘Britified EU’. Campaigning is about selling a product. But people will be offended if you try to sell the EU the same way as you would sell some washing powder. Instead you must explain and repeat.

3. Don’t make a long campaign – the media won’t write the same story for three months in a row. The longer the campaign, the more questions will be raised. When Denmark voted against joining the euro in 2000, the news story was that the dollar was much stronger than the euro. On purely economic ground that would be an advantage tor Denmark, since it would ease our exports and create new jobs. But to the people it was a sign of weakness, and who would want to join a weak currency?

4. Popular politicians – the government is more popular after than before a general election. Therefore, it’s important to call for the referendum just after a general election. You will have a newly elected PM in the lead of the EU campaign. Furthermore, don’t ever say that you will leave office in the case of a no. It will almost automatically bring all of the opposition to vote no. National politics is more important to individuals, so they would tend use the EU vote for a national political purpose.

5. Allow non-politicians to debate – let people from civil society, popular individuals with whom people like to identify, and business people contribute. Don’t leave the floor to politicians only.

6. No incomprehensible EU articles, treaties etc. – don’t ever publicise papers or EU pamphlets that can’t be understood. You would never do that in a national election campaign. There is no reason to complicate matters, as all relevant documents are available on the internet for those interested. Don’t give in, when all the demands on further information are thrown in the air. Answer all the questions in plain English as you would do in national political matters.

7. Don’t wear your blue socks with yellow stars – EU symbols matter, but in the north of Europe EU symbols are viewed negatively. It would take a long time to reverse that tendency, and much longer than the planned campaign.

‘Is there something in it for me?’

The general public will approach the campaign by asking what’s in it for them. We’ve just been through seven years of economic crisis, with lost jobs and welfare. People tend to look inwards during economic crisis.

Moreover our societies today are focused on how to honour individual needs. The willingness to compromise has been pushed into the background. When nobody wants to accept a compromise it is rather difficult to convince people that a binding European cooperation project with 28 countries and half a billion people is attractive.

At the end of the day the question you have to answer on 23 June is an emotional one: do the British want to stay in the European family or not?

This post was originally published on the UCL European Institute’s Britain and Europe blog and openDemocracy. It is re-posted with permission.

To find out more about the UCL European Institute’s first Brexit Divisions guest editor week click here.

About the author

Charlotte Antonsen was an MP and EU spokesman in the Danish Parliament from 1990 to 2007.


8 thoughts on “You never know with referendums: a view from Denmark

  1. As far as NATO is concerned, Peter, my phraseology can be deemed rather over-dramatic but readers can judge whether our NATO obligations represent a major sharing of sovereignty if they look at Article 5 of the NATO treaty. They will see ” The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

    Although obliged to respond, the Parties do maintain the freedom to choose the method by which they do so. Nevertheless It is assumed that NATO members will aid the attacked member militarily and will certainly put themselves in a situation whereby the belligerent party is likely to regard them as at war with them. No amount of hairsplitting on this will take away from my basic point that NATO membership derogates to a high degree from the concept of absolute national sovereignty.

    The rest of what you say consists largely of malign assumptions about the motives of most or even all of our EU partners, including the accusation that they will ignore most of the important assurances and undertakings that have been given to the UK. To put our country and its citizens through the immense disruption of extracting us from the EU in pursuit of such a pessimistic view seems to me the height of folly. I can (with an effort) imagine a future situation where everyone gangs up destructively against us. Only then would I deem it right to contemplate breaking the union. I very much doubt such a development would ever arise.

  2. Thank you Denis for replying. I would make several points.

    First there is a big difference between intergovernmental agreements and some external organisation having supremacy over nation states. The decision is always made by the national government, not by the foreign collective.
    Secondly, you take no account of the EU’s trajectory. It already has primacy over national parliaments on a vast range of issues that do not require international collaboration, never mind supremacy of a foreign power, and its intention is to form the Federal State of Europe regardless of the wishes of any national electorate. It is naive in the extreme to suppose that Britain’s opt out as one of only two states not committed to EMU will not also be under enormous pressure to join EMU and the Federal State. Clearly its opt out of Schengen (in any case Britain does participate in some parts of Schengen) is unsustainable in those circumstances.
    Third, international collaboration does not require a foreign law-making polity to have supremacy over national parliaments. It is extremely dangerous – as I would have thought anyone seriously interested in constitutional issues would understand – to give the executive the power to override parliaments on every matter. That is already the case in the EU and completion and totality of that power is where the EU is heading. It is already the case that the EU Parliament has no power whatsoever to initiate legislation and no electorate anywhere in the EU has the power to dismiss the executive, even if they were all to combine in a single vote. It is an extremely dangerous constitutional arrangement.
    Fourth, I have worked in NATO and know how it operates. An attack on one member does not mean we are all automatically at war. I have never heard such a stupidly shallow and absurd interpretation of the NATO treaty. It means all members have the legal right to respond. What NATO does is then decide among themselves on a response which may or may not involve members other than the one attacked. If they participate they commit national forces and other resources as agreed to the NATO military command but political control always remains with national governments. A nation can withdraw its forces from the NATO operation at any time. You say, ‘No debate, no opt-outs, we are at war.’ Such rubbish. The principle frustration members have is the lengthy debates required for any decision to be made. Which is why any member has the right to respond unilaterally if it needs to without committing any other member to take action itself. If what you say were true it would mean the signatories were incompetent. No nation would sensibly sign up to the arrangement you describe. It is like Osborne’s, Cameron’s and now the OECD’s predictions of the woes facing Britain were it to leave the EU; all true if and only if both UK’s government and the EU were utterly incompetent.
    Fifth, oh, never mind.

  3. First of all It does not help to express questions in terms of absolutes. The EU is not “supranational unaccountable government”. It is to some degree accountable (albeit one of the reforms likely to emerge from the clear pressure now growing across Europe – not only in Britain- is greater accountability) and it is not “supranational government” in the full sense in that major decisions are still made at national level, particularly in the UK with its opt-outs on the euro, Schengen etc.

    However the real point is this. The world is an increasingly complex and interconnected place. Many of the most intractable problems are in themselves supranational and need to be addressed in supranational fashion. Others could still be addressed at national level but mankind can gain greatly by international co-operation in those also. Frankly there is no such thing anymore as absolutely “sovereign parliamentary democracy” . Even the simplest and most underdeveloped countries – perhaps especially those countries – are deeply affected by the actions of major forces, government and non-government, far from their own shores. Take NATO for example. If any member of NATO is invaded we are at war with the invader. No debate, no opt-outs, we are at war. It would be difficult to think of any more vital decision for any government than plunging its citizens into war but there it is. In that case – and (albeit not of course precise analogous) in the case of the EU – we have chosen to pool our sovereignty for the greater good.

    Me – I believe we are right to be in both NATO and the EU and in the many other international/supernational entities which now bestride this planet and of which we have chosen to be members.

  4. I haven’t visited this site since my earlier comment on 18 March. I see nobody has answered my question: ‘All they (the Remainers) have to do is explain why supra-national unaccountable government is superior to sovereign parliamentary democracy. Why is that so difficult?’

    I haven’t heard Cameron try to answer it. In fact I haven’t heard of any leading figure try to justify government of Britain by the EU. Is the truth that it cannot be justified? I would expect the Constitution unit to have the answer down pat. Surely one of you is prepared to disclose it?

  5. Rita Shaw seems to be taking it on herself to “speak for Britain” in refusing to be influenced by facts or informed opinions, Let’s hope most of the voters will prior to June 23 take a little time to consider a decision that I think most of us (whichever side we feel drawn to) would agree is going to have a very great impact on our lives and those of our successors.

  6. Ms Antonsen got one thing right – “At the end of the day the question you have to answer on 23 June is an emotional one: do the British want to stay in the European family or not?”
    The answer is No; it’s a gut feeling that no bombardment with economic facts or the colour of socks will alter. Like the Danes, we’ve had enough of EU dictatorship.

  7. There are of course many good reasons for the UK to remain in the EU and it is ridiculous to claim otherwise. They have been listed many times. Just google “reasons to stay in EU”. However let’s just concentrate on one area which is of supreme importance to our economy – the City of London. An article this week in the London Evening Standard should get wider circulation. It is by Lord Hill, appointed in 2014 as European Commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union. The very fact of his being appointed to that portfolio demonstrates the pre-eminence of the UK in this field. Extracts from his article –

    “The combination of British flexibility with European scale is obviously a powerful one. Although I sometimes read that the City is “drowning” or “suffocating” in regulation, London seems to be in fairly rude health. Over the past decade, the surplus from Britain’s trade in financial services more than doubled, from £23 billion in 2004 to £58 billion in 2014. And last year, once again, London was rated by the Global Financial Centres Index as the world’s most competitive financial centre. So under the present set-up, something seems to be going okay.

    For a country such as Britain with great strengths in financial services, being part of the single market is a huge advantage. Passporting, whereby any financial service business established in one EU country can do business in all 28, is one of the reasons that the British fund management industry can look after a big chunk of the €8 trillion (£6.24 trillion) market in Europe’s globally successful investment product, Ucits [Undertakings for collective investments in transferable securities].

    It means British insurance groups running businesses across Europe are not faced with the difficult equivalence assessments process which third countries have to pass.

    But second, countries outside the EU have to meet the standards of the EU to do business here. So either Britain would, like Norway, have to accept free movement and pay to get proper access to the single market, and still have to follow EU rules over which it would then have no say.

    Or the UK would have to ask the EU countries to have our rules recognised as being equivalent to theirs, and even then businesses such as banks and insurance would have to set up a separate base in the EU to do business there.

    Some claim it would be in the interests of the EU to come up with rules that suited the UK. Well, countries such as Germany and France have very different financial sectors from the UK. Their preoccupations are therefore different. Today, financial rules in the EU reflect this variety. But if Britain left the EU why would this continue to be the case? Why should other countries, pursuing their own interests, use political capital defending Britain’s — assuming they didn’t want to seize the opportunity of our absence to gain a competitive advantage? It would be ironic if, in the name of gaining more control, Britain ended up having to sign up to rules over which it had no control at all.

    As a European Commissioner I meet lots of British business leaders. The great majority do not seem to think that Britain faces a choice between trading with Europe or trading with the rest of the world. They know that Germany, at the heart of the EU, is the world’s third-largest exporter. They can see that far from being held back by the EU, the City of London has risen to become the world’s strongest financial centre.

    I have never been starry-eyed about the EU. I campaigned with Business for Sterling to keep the UK out of the euro. Given Britain’s history, it’s no surprise we like to go our own way. But there is no convincing answer as to how any future arrangements outside the EU would be better; instead, we’re offered a future shrouded in uncertainty.

    One thing is certain, however. Outside, Britain would not be able to maintain access to the single market on the terms it has at present. And to be certain of access, businesses would start to think about moving elsewhere in Europe to set up.”

  8. This is another piece about how to manipulate public opinion and disguise it as a genuine unbiased presentation of a case for one side of the debate. The real problem the pro EU Remainers have in the British case is that there really is no convincing argument for Britain to remain in the EU. If there were, why don’t they simply state it?

    All they have to do is explain why supra-national unaccountable government is superior to sovereign parliamentary democracy. Why is that so difficult?

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