Another people’s vote can send Brussels’s Potemkin army packing

It had one in 1972 over joining the EEC (63 per cent Yes). It had one in 1986 on the Single European Act (56 per cent Yes). It had one in 1992 over Maastricht – a 50.7 per cent No, so it had to rerun it the following year (57 per cent Yes). It had one on Amsterdam in 1998 (55 per cent Yes). It had one on joining the Euro in 2000 (53 per cent No). It had one in 2014 on joining the EU’s Patent Court (62 per cent Yes). It had one on dropping its Justice and Home Affairs opt out in 2015 (53 per cent No). Plus, there was a referendum in 1982 that led to Greenland leaving the EEC (53 per cent Leave).

Why the apparent need for more votes than other countries? A combination of Scandinavian love of democratic accountability, plus a plethora of special opt outs.

At the Edinburgh Summit hosted by John Major, EU leaders signed off on allowing the Danes to stay out of the developing Common Security and Defence arena (CSDP), keep their currency, preserve some safeguards on citizenship and maintain their distance on justice and home affairs matters. These country-specific concessions were signed off, against the prevailing trend, as necessary cover to allow the Danish government to demand a cheeky second vote over Maastricht, and to give it a chance of delivering the desired result.

Remarkably, in all of these areas, successive Danish governments have subsequently attempted to surrender these self-same opts outs. No-one can accuse the country’s political elites of not being ardently integrationist: it is the people who keep proving to be the problem.

The trend seems to be for the public to reject big changes and accept small ones, revealing an extraordinary social divide – the political elites pushing for more integration and grassroots campaigning organisations arguing that changes are doubly risky because they are irreversible. Notably, ratifying the Lisbon Treaty wasn’t risked with a popular vote.

To recall Brecht, would it not be easier in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?

We will find out soon enough. Copenhagen was granted an opt out of the EU’s developing defence ambitions after it first rejected Maastricht. Its political leaders are now brazenly doing precisely what Brussels itself does best: exploiting a crisis to pursue the integration agenda. With war in Ukraine, the Danish government has called a referendum to seek to drop its defence opt out.

The need is far from obvious, and the timing is not as clever as it might have first seemed. The EU has failed to shine: the UK, US, and Poland have been the key players rather than Brussels. Of the Continent’s defence organisations, it is NATO that has proven its true worth. The less said about the strategic coherence and moral strength in all this of Germany and France – the backbone of CSDP (Common Security and Defence Policy) – the better. But for context, it was Denmark who allowed British planes to ferry anti-tank munitions across their airspace to Ukraine while Germany dithered.

The referendum will as ever be a tough political fight. The major political parties have as usual herded together to support surrendering another big slice of their sovereignty. We can expect the campaign funding to be skewed. The initial ballot question at least has had to be changed to a more neutral one after major protest.

But it is an important question – not just for the Danes who face being dragged along with growing Brussels military ambitions, but also for wider Europe including the UK. A rejection by Danish voters on 1 June will help slow the EU’s defence project, a project which is a serious risk to the effectiveness and ultimately the existence of NATO.

And if it also serves to remind politicians in Brussels of the hubris of their pretensions and the need to listen to what their voters have repeatedly already said they want, then all the better for democrats everywhere.

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