To be or not to be – a sovereign people

Mel Gibson hamlet 6

Mel Gibson in Hamlet, the 1990 drama film by Franco Zeffirelli

By Ole Aabenhus
The Danes – people and politicians alike – agreed on one thing when they went to the polls on December 3: That the subject matter of the referendum had changed during the campaign. Originally it was supposed to be about keeping Denmark in Europol, but as the campaign went on, so many other matters had entered the game, that in the end, no one could say for sure what the Danes were voting about in the referendum.

And the result is just as unclear: The No had it with a comfortable majority of 53 to 47. But the No-coalition counted three parties, which would normally be in total disagreement: One was ultra-liberalist (Liberal Alliance), one Marxist (Red-Green Alliance), one a nationalist welfare party (Danish People’s Party). The three were supported by a strong nationalist NGO: People’s Movement against the EU.

A rabbit out of a hat?
Presently, the Danish political establishment is trying to sort out, how Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen is going to explain the situation, when he goes to Brussels on Friday to meet EU’s top brass.

The political analysis started formally on Monday when Lars Løkke Rasmussen met with party leaders. And surprisingly enough the politicians from the entire political spectre now seem to agree that the prime minister has found one thing they can all agree upon: The main issue of the referendum, Denmark’s possibility to stay in Europol, could be cleared by simply accepting a few judicial acts by a 5/6 majority in Parliament.

To the public this seems like a conjurer pulling a rabbit out of a hat: Apparently a referendum had not been necessary at all. Nor the confusion that had seized the voters.

However, the 6 per cent No majority has now led to a new debate: The referendum result could be interpreted as a public criticism of Denmark’s role in the EU, so the question is if Denmark should to stay in its present position “close to the centre of the EU” (i.e. close to Germany and likeminded countries), or if Denmark should move closer to David Cameron’s EU-line and work for a variable geometry free of the “closer and closer” integration mantra.

So far, the Government has simply rejected a change of position, and referred to a parliamentary majority agreement that we will stay “close to centre”.

How complications grew
What happened, actually? Well, politicians and analysts agreed all the way to the 3rd of December that the matter was extremely complicated. And probably the way complication grew is partly responsible for the outcome.

The Government originally took the position – back by a parliamentary majority including the Social Democrats - that the Danes had to vote Yes in a referendum, if Denmark was to stay in Europol, when this inter-state police cooperation unit will change status and become an EU agency, expectedly by 2017.

But long before the referendum it was clear, that the No-side totally agreed that Denmark should stay in Europol. Even when the spotlight changed, and the public realised that a Yes would also include accepted to 22 acts related to cross-border civil justice issues, total agreement remained.

Now came the question: Why did the government not disclose the entire scope of the referendum at the outset?

Does opt-in mean less sovereignty?
The debate then changed character and came to deal with an issue of sovereignty: Staying in Europol when it becomes an EU agency, would imply that Denmark would give up its old opt-out on judicial affairs and change it into an opt-in (explanation below).

In a sort of asymmetrical political geometry, the Danes were asked to vote for a Europol opt-in, but the opt-in would imply that e.g. EU asylum regulation and all sorts of others fields in EUs growing portfolio on Justice and Home Affairs could now have effect in Denmark, if only a simple majority in Parliament voted it.

This opened for an ugly in-fight: The No-side declared that Yes-politicians could not be trusted, as they were prone to accept all sorts of EU-demands. Only the people’s vote in a referendum would be a sufficient defence for Danish sovereignty.

And in any case, Denmark could obtain a so-called parallel agreement with the EU institutions and with all 27 other member countries to stay in Europol, the No-side claimed. Or we could decide to set up a new, special referendum, which made us stay in Europol without changing the opt-out.

Anyway, in the eyes of the No-side, sovereignty was now a matter of the people deciding in a referendum. Letting our elected representatives decide was a loss of sovereignty.

The Yes coalition tried to counteract by solemnly declaring that another referendum would be called before they would ever accept to make an EU regulation on asylum matters part of Danish law. And anyway, they said, obtaining a parallel agreement would be a long and unsure business, stretching over, perhaps, 5-6 years.

Conclusion: Three aspects of sovereignty
So, in the end Danish voters were unsure if vote was on Europol or on Danish sovereignty. There were even three main interpretations on “sovereignty” in the debate:

One was to keep the old Danish opt-out which was invented when Danes voted No to the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. At the time it was an answer to some unclear statements of intension in the Maastricht Treaty which many feared would open up for a European federal state with its own army, an FBI-type of European police force etc.

The second was the one already mentioned, that sovereignty was to stay with the people, and not to be left to politicians who were – obviously – always under influence by Brussels. Thus any bit of change to the old opt-out had to be decided by a referendum.

The third, less pronounced, was that new “rights” should only be handed over to the EU, if they could be pulled back when we so wished. This could be seen as a wish for a total showdown with the basic principle of the EU – that states pool parts of their sovereign power for good, in order to obtain new advantages.


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