I have been in Copenhagen for a conference convened to discuss Denmark's ‘No' vote on the Maastricht treaty, 20 years later.
Actually, the ‘No' vote was in June 1992. A ‘Yes' vote followed in 1993, after the European Council meeting in Edinburgh in December 1992 had approved granting Denmark certain opt-outs.
The core of the conference consisted of two sessions with protagonists from 20 years ago revisiting the events. So on Thursday we had two foreign ministers and two leading figures from the anti-Maastricht June movement. On Friday, we had diplomats and lawyers who were involved in negotiating the subsequent opt-outs.
I had been invited along to talk about the implications of the Danish ‘No' vote outside Denmark. I reminded the audience of the effects on British politics. Noting that 1 November was the 22nd anniversary of the resignation of Geoffrey Howe, which precipitated the ousting of Margaret Thatcher, I recalled that the wounds from that political defenestration were suppressed for the expediency of electoral politics (John Major fought and won a general election in the spring of 1992), but were exposed once again by the Danish ‘No'.
The Eurosceptics in the ranks of the Conservative party were emboldened to rebel and Major's government descended into chaos. The vote this week in the British parliament on the UK's negotiating position for discussion on the EU's budget for 2014-20 (David Cameron was defeated when rebel Conservatives combined with the Labour opposition) has awakened memories of those traumas in the Major era.
The Danish ‘No' also weakened the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, because it made clear to the financial markets that the Maastricht treaty was not going to take swift effect. The ERM, which was already in trouble, was stretched to breaking point, and the UK and Italy were forced to drop out in September 1992.
The details of this trip down memory lane do not belong in this blog entry. I give a flavour of the discussion in order to convey some impressions of Danish attitudes. The Danes are particularly fascinated by Cameron's manoeuvrings on Europe – and a bit of historical perspective gives some clues as to why: Denmark's relations with Europe have for sixty years, been closely tied to those of the UK.
When Charles De Gaulle blocked the UK's entry into the Common Market in the 1963, he effectively blocked Denmark as well, because Denmark was not prepared to go in without the UK and ally itself with France and Germany. So Denmark waited to go in with the UK in 1973. When the UK held a referendum on EU membership in 1975, Denmark seriously considered whether, if the result was a ‘No' vote, it too would have to leave. On the surface, the Maastricht treaty experience of 1992-93 reinforced the link between the UK and Denmark. The UK had won an opt-out in the initial negotiations. Denmark obtained four opt-outs a year later.
Yet there is no way that Denmark wants to be tied irrevocably to the UK now, particularly as the prospect of the UK leaving the EU becomes less than unthinkable. Denmark is, by the standards that prevail today, near the mainstream of the European Union, even if it is not part of the eurozone. As I told my Danish audience, 20 years on, Denmark is not perceived in EU circles as being obstructive. Through its presidencies of the Council of Ministers in 1993 and 2002, it established itself as a champion of enlarging the EU. It has been at the forefront of some policy debates – about climate change and about flexible employment, for example.
Oddly, here in Denmark the political debate does not start from that position. Largely because of those opt-outs, Danish political debate tends to start from an assumption that Denmark is perceived by the rest of the EU as awkward and obstructive. That is a distortion. It will be interesting to see whether in the coming months Denmark can change its perception of itself and how it is perceived by others. The gap between the UK and Denmark is widening. Where will Denmark position itself with respect to the rest of the EU, especially as the differences between the eurozone and the rest harden?
Tim has been editor of European Voice since 2009, having joined the staff as deputy editor in 2004. He has been reporting on EU issues since he came to Brussels in 1998. His greatest claim to fame in the eyes of some of his colleagues is that, growing up in north London, he used to have violin lessons with the artist now known as George Michael.
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