How harmless is the Danish “No” to the rest of the EU?

Posted on Posted in Analyses, EU & NATO, International Developments

By Lamprini Basdeki, International security expert

At first, the Danish “No” that we all heard about recently is seemingly harmless. The citizens of a small member state decided with a cheerful 53.5% not to comply with the EU Justice & Home Affairs, to which it had opted out anyway during another public vote in 1992. So what? Is it really that important? This article will argue that yes, it is very important to the rest of EU to take a look at Denmark’s recent vote and it is planning to examine what exactly was the vote about, why the Danes decided to vote “No” and what are the future repercussions for both Denmark and EU. But let’s take things from the beginning, shall we?


The Danes initially rejected the Maastricht Treaty as a whole back in 1992. They did however, accept it with a second referendum in 1993, with the term that there would be some opt outs[i], which concerned the Monetary Union, the Common Security and Defense Policy, Justice and Home Affairs and the Citizenship of the European Union. Due to these opt outs, Denmark could not participate in a number of EU legislations and it had to create various intergovernmental agreements in each and every case so as to keep in line with the EU. These include the Brussels convention and the Dublin convention.

The Europol, however, is about to change the way countries cooperate on criminal investigations, including bans to opt-outs – and that would need a change of the Danish opt-out in the JHA affairs under which Europol falls. As a result, the Social Democrats, the Danish Social Liberal Party, the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party and the Socialist People’s Party called for a referendum, scheduled the 3rd of December 2015, purposely before the British referendum which is expected to take place in 2016, and in the wake of the Paris attacks on 13th of November 2015.[ii]

What are we voting about?

The Danes had to vote so as to change the “opt-out” system to a convenient pick-and-choose “opt-in”, similar to the one of UK and Ireland. The “Yes” campaigners identified 22 acts of the EU Justice and Home Affairs policy that they wished to enact and these were the ones the Danes were requested to vote upon, while they rejected all the rest. These 22 legislative acts included the cross-border legal aid directive, the cybercrime initiative, human trafficking initiatives, and the combating the abuse and the sexual exploitation of children initiative. Among them, there were also legislations concerning divorce and child custody.

Those acts, which can be found here, do not concern at all immigration per se, another point in which Denmark has securely opted-out from[iii]. It is also important to note here that asylum and immigration, which are very sensitive topics for the Danish state, not only were not included in those 22 legislative acts, but the Danish government reassured  the country that it will not take part in this initiative, as well as in 17 more initiatives that it decided to be exempt from. Concerning specifically asylum and immigration, the government insisted that there would be another referendum before the country joined any such initiative.

The day after the referendum was announced a few months back by the Danish government, the “YES” voters, according to Gallup, reached a 58%. However, less than a week before the actual voting, 23% of the Danes declared undecided and a 48% percent of them thought that “they did not know enough” on the referendum itself. What happened in the meantime?

Why did the Danes vote “NO”?

A recent research of the very popular in the country DR news agency showed that a lot of people had difficulty with understanding the question of the referendum itself, which was too complicated and too technical[iv]. Rebeca Adler Nissen from the University of Copenhagen, an expert on referendums, said that the complexity of the question was such, that to many it had to do with the overall relationship with the EU. [v]

A number of events also occurred during the past few months, such as the inability of the European Union to handle the refugee crisis and the Paris attacks earlier in November. These events clearly raised a lot of Eurosceptic questions concerning the efficiency of the EU as a whole and certainly affected positively the “No” vote, especially the undecided Danes and the ones who did not clearly understand the nature of the voting. As Lars Lokke Rasmussen, the Danish Prime Minister mentioned right after the referendum, “…the result of the voting is based on a general skepticism toward the EU”.

Another very important reason was the fact that the campaign of “Yes” was not very successful, as it looked like one of “scare”, said Peter Skaarup, deputy of the Eurosceptic Danish People’s Party (DF)[vi]. To be more specific, the “Yes” campaign used pictures of victims of child sex abuse so as to convince the voters of not voting against the referendum as their country would otherwise be filled with pedophiles – but the Danes didn’t buy that argument.

The most important reason however for the turnout of this voting, was the fact that the Danes do not wish to give up more sovereignty to Brussels and they believed that with by voting “Yes” they would do so. They are not against cooperating with EU, as it seems, not at all. However, they feel that they cannot give up more of the decision making process of their state or to integrate more with a system that according to them is non-transparent and not directly elected from them. As Kristian Thulesen-Dahl, head of the Danish People’s Party (DF) that led the “No” campaign said: “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”[vii].

What happens next?

Voting “Yes” would have positively affected Denmark and it would grant it with access to a system that is similar to the one of UK and Ireland, in which they would adopt legislations on a case by case basis, asylum and immigration policies not included. It would automatically enact the 22 debated legislation acts on police cooperation, criminal law, civil, family and commercial law and it would continue participating in Europol and Eurojust.

What happens now, though? Denmark will maintain the opt-outs as it has always had, however as far as Europol is concerned, the country will unfortunately either have to break ties with it or to seek to negotiate a different collaboration agreement, just as Norway and Switzerland have done, which are not EU members. The Commission’s chief spokesperson, Margaritis Schinas said himself that “it will be impossible for Denmark to cooperate fully as part of Europol. They will ask experts to look at a limited cooperation that is politically and legally possible. They underlined that this will be a difficult process and it will take a lot of time”. [viii]

In short term, the question is whether the EU will seem flexible enough to keep Denmark in a special relationship status with Europol, or whether it will refuse further debate and kick the country out of the organization. And on the one hand, if the EU is flexible enough to renegotiate the Europol terms with Denmark, perhaps the British side and David Cameron, also preparing for a referendum, will also be willing to renegotiate flexibility terms with the EU before their crucial voting and perhaps not leave the Union.

On the other hand though, if the EU turns out to be flexible and to keep a relationship with Denmark, if Denmark manages to “get away with it”, to continue its’ collaboration with Europol and to still be able to sit on the negotiations table on the Justice and Home Affairs policy, that is something that would send the wrong signal to the rest of the member states: it would mean that the other states can also have the right to vote “No” and that they can also have the right to reject certain EU legislation acts for no matter what reason, but that they can still get what they want from the EU. That could easily create a precedent for other European initiatives, such as the Monetary Union, or the Common Security & Defense Policy and create possible future opt-outs for other states too, by altering in this way the whole purpose of the European Union and its values.


[i] The Danes, in 1992, decided to opt out, that is to say they decided to join the Maastricht Treaty, but they did not wish to participate in certain of its arrangements

[ii] Reuters, “Danish parties agree to hold EU referendum by March 2016”, available online at:

[iii] EU Observer, “Danish referendum: Young voters want EU at arm’s length”, available online at:

[iv], “Five burning questions after Denmark’s no to EU”, available online at:

[v] BBC News, Copenhagen, “Uncertainty’ fuels Danish EU referendum No vote”, available online at:

[vi] Telegraph, “EU could be slapped down again by Danes in latest referendum”, available online at:

[vii] DW, “’Clear no’ in Danish vote on deeper EU cooperation”, available at:

[viii], “Denmark cannot remain full Europol member after referendum”, available online at: