Not much is rotten in the state of Denmark | Special Issue European Elections 2019

In five years, the Danish moved from thinking of pulling out to the EU to supporting it

Compared to many of its European peers, Denmark can be considered a ‘dull’ country to follow. At a time when the European economy keeps disappointing, the Danish economy is booming; unemployment is historically low, exports keep increasing and Denmark is the most digitized economy in the European Union (based on the EU’s DESI index). The news are dominated by big stories from abroad and smaller political controversies from home. As such, Danish voters have a different perspective on the upcoming 2019 European Parliament election than many other Europeans.

Anti-European winds
However, this has not always been the case. Back in 2014, the political landscape looked completely different. The scars from the recently escaped financial crisis were still healing, EU scepticism was at an all-time high and frustration with social dumping permeated public discourse. In that context, the Danish People’s Party, the EU sceptic party par excellence in Denmark, obtained 26,6% of the votes and four of the thirteen available seats – thus becoming the largest party of the 2014 European Parliament election in Denmark. This unprecedented result was partly due to the persona of Morten Messerschmidt, a charismatic and extremely eloquent lawyer, who obtained over 465 thousand preference votes, the highest ever for a Danish politician in an election to the EP. The Danish People’s Party campaign built on a mixture of scepticism against the EU establishment, resentment towards the so-called ‘benefit tourism’ and criticism of the EU-friendly coalition at home. A lot has happened since then. Most European countries recovered from the devastating financial crisis (to a greater or lesser extent), we experienced a game-changing influx of migrants in 2015 and Brexit – who could forget Brexit. Based on these significant events, many pundits predicted the rise of populism in Europe. As a series of domino bricks, one country after the other would follow the UK’s departure from the European Union. First Nexit, then Grexit and finally Daxit. However, those predictions have not materialised. Although it is true that populism (from the left and right) is dominating the political landscape across the continent and that they will, most likely, play a major role in the upcoming European Parliament election, this reality seems to have escaped Denmark.

Something is (not) rotten in the state of Denmark
While the whole continent is engaged in debating momentous topics, from the rise (and dominance) of far-right parties, the suppression of the rule of law or the detachment of elites from common people, Denmark is engaged in a more mundane type of debate. When we are not discussing healthcare reform or the overhaul of our infrastructure, the ubiquitous topic of conversation in Danish political circles is when the national parliamentary elections will be. The election has to be held at the latest on June 17 this year. Which has of course led political pundits to speculate about all possible constellations for this election. At the time of writing, the most likely option is for the national parliamentary election to be held on the same day as the European Parliament election. As this is an unprecedented occurrence in Danish history, it is difficult to predict how the European Parliament election will be affected. Both sides of the aisle make compelling arguments. One side celebrates this ‘festività of democracy’ where the European election will experience an unprecedented voter turnout (as a direct result of people voting for the national election). The other side deplores this event, fearing that an otherwise ‘uninteresting’ European election will drown under the tide of national politics and will simply become a reflection of the national election.

A recent survey found that 7 out of 10 Danes support the EU, and 62% answered that they did not want a referendum on Denmark’s EU membership

Be it as it may, a couple of months before the European Parliament election, what seems clear is that Danes have changed their mind regarding the EU. During all the referenda and debates we have had since joining the EEC in 1972, the split has usually been half and half for and against the EU. Before the Brexit referendum in 2016, almost one third of all Danes answered that Denmark should follow the UK out of the EU, and less than half actually wanted to stay in the EU. However, a recent survey found that 7 out of 10 Danes support the EU, and 62% answered that they did not want a referendum on Denmark’s EU membership – and if a referendum on the topic were to be held, a staggering 66% would vote to remain in the EU, while 22% would vote leave. This trend can also be observed in the early opinion polls where the Danish People’s Party is polling at a disappointing 13,8% (almost half of what they obtained in 2014) and where the mainstream EU-friendly parties are increasing their voter share and clearly dominating the political landscape. The EU sceptical parties have also identified this EU-friendliness. The leftist Red-Green Alliance (the furthest left party in the Danish Parliament) and one of the most EU sceptical parties in Denmark, has backed down from their persistent promise of having a referendum on Danish EU membership, now arguing for a ‘more constructive approach’. The same can be observed with the Danish People’s Party, who at the current moment will not call for a vote on EU membership.

The usual suspects
What can account for this unexpected turn of events? To start with the obvious point, the elephant in the room is Brexit. Danes are painfully aware of the hardships that our fellow EU sceptic partners from across the channel are facing. Not one day goes by without another headline, another horror story or another documentary explaining, in excruciating detail, how difficult and chaotic it is to leave the EU. Before 2016, many Danes (and Brits) were of the idea that leaving the EU would be a walk in the park – a mere formality that would allow us to have our cake and eat it. Alas, how things have changed. After two years of constant infighting in the British parliament, and with the prospect of prolonging the pain for an indefinite amount of time, no one in continental Europe has the stomach to engage in a similar hara kiri, especially in Denmark, a country that everything considered is doing very well economically.

After two years of constant infighting in the British parliament, and with the prospect of prolonging the pain for an indefinite amount of time, no one in continental Europe has the stomach to engage in a similar hara kiri, especially in Denmark

Although Brexit has taught us that life inside the club is considerably more prosperous than outside, it would be too simplistic to solely rely on Brexit as an explanation for this recent development. As previously mentioned in this article, the infamous Morten Messerschmidt was a leading factor for the Danish People’s Party’s historical 2014 election, however, in August 2016, he resigned as EU parliament group leader for the DPP, as a result of a scandal involving irregularities in the use of funds for domestic elections. Since then, the party has been lacking a front figure with the same gravitas as Messerschmidt, who was capable of spearheading Denmark’s EU scepticism. Furthermore, it is worth keeping in mind that Denmark, contrary to its Northern European neighbours, only accepted a fraction of the migrants who reached Europe in 2015. Despite being a hotly debated topic ever since, it never reached the epic proportions observed in Germany, Italy and Sweden, for instance. Furthermore, a consensus quickly formed in the Danish Parliament about adopting a tough line on migration. This was perfectly exemplified by the Social Democrat’s transformation from a progressive migrant-friendly party to a party that has become analogous to the DPP (regarding migration policy). Thus, the raison d'être of the DPP, namely to run a tough line on migration, was swallowed by establishment parties (to the left and right) and seems to have deflated a party that had been experiencing a continuous growth since its creation in 1995. The deflation of the DPP is apparent in polls for both the European Parliament election and the Danish national parliamentary election.

An European anomaly
So, what can we expect in the upcoming European Parliament election? Contrary to many of its European neighbours, Denmark will probably experience the most “uncontroversial” results of the lot. The mainstream EU-positive parties will secure most of the seats and will contribute to strengthening the EPP, ALDE, the Greens and the S&D. On the other side, EU sceptical parties will receive a fraction of the votes received in the last election in 2014 – strengthening GUE/NGL and the ECR with a couple of mandates respectively. As such, we will see an election reminiscent of the 80s and 90s, where European enthusiasm dominated the political discourse in Europe and where European scepticism was a fringe movement. One question still remains; will Denmark be a historical anomaly or will it lead the way for the rest of the continent in the future?

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