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You never know with referendums! A view from Denmark

The Danes have had eight EU referendums to date. A veteran campaigner and former Danish MP relates her experience of these and explains the mechanics of influencing a referendum vote.

Charlotte Antonsen

In Denmark we have had eight EU referendums in the last four decades.

As a former member of the Danish parliament and EU-spokesman from 1990 to 2007, I’ve been directly involved in planning and campaigning for four of them. Below I will share what lessons the UK may draw from this experience, and explain what happened in our last EU-referendum in December, the rejection of which came as a big surprise to many.

Voters vote as they please

Comrade Foot/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)

We have asked the Danes all kinds of different EU-questions. Each time the people have answered yes or no, but it wouldn’t be right to say that the Danes actually answered the question that was put to them on the ballot paper.

Only three months ago we had an EU referendum about freedom, security, and justice. It was about changing one of the Danish opt-outs to a voluntary opt-in model. The reason is that we will have to leave Europol next year if we don’t change the opt-out. So the idea was that the referendum should primarily be about Europol.

At the beginning of the campaign, the no-parties had a problem: according to opinion polls almost everyone supported Europol. To solve the problem the no-parties changed their view on Europol from ‘no’ to ‘yes’, and then re-wrote their narrative so they could still advocate for a ‘no’ in the referendum. They used the argument ‘we want less EU’ and pointed their fingers at the 22 small EU-directives, mainly about cross-boarder business matters, that was also part of the referendum.

The no-argument was thus adjusted to the opinion polls: The new no-story said: ‘vote no at the referendum and stay in Europol. Who would want to throw Denmark out?’ They further argued, ‘we will just make another and better deal with the 27 EU-countries, the European Commission, and the European Parliament. No problem’.

Unfortunately this new story worked. A majority (53%) of the people voted no. And now we will have to leave Europol next year if nothing new happens. So far it hasn’t been possible for the Danish government to clear the EU negotiating table to make room for the Danish problem, as it is currently consumed with discussions on what to do with the refugee and migrant situation. At the referendum the Danes were asked about Europol, but they answered that they didn't want 22 new EU directives!

More or less EU

No matter what we ask the public, the primary answer from the average no-voter has been that he wants ‘less EU’. It was the same when we voted on the Maastricht treaty in 1992. Those who voted no explained that they wouldn’t give up more sovereignty to the European community.

The year after, in May 1993, we voted on Maastricht again, but this time on the basis of four opt-outs negotiated in Edinburgh after the first no vote in 1992. Our yes campaign explained that what was now on offer was no longer such a big step, and we promised new referendums on each opt-out if we were to change the Danish position. Then we got a yes, and the four opt-outs – the euro, EU defence policy, internal affairs including Europol, ‘European’ citizenship – are still in function more than 20 years later.

Lessons for Brexit campaigns

What can the UK’s campaigners learn from this latest Danish episode? One thing is sure about a referendum: you never know. No matter how well you plan, something unexpected can always pop up.

The outcome of a referendum therefore depends on the overall national picture, such as popularity of the politicians, what else is at the agenda, and a lot of other things tangential to the particular matter at hand.

The simple truth is that, to the vast majority of the voters, EU matters aren’t very important and people don’t know much about the everyday politics of the EU. Therefore they are easily framed as victims in populist propaganda. The less people know, the easier they are cheated.

1. Make it simple – it was a big mistake in Denmark to vote on a new opt-in model, on Europol, and on 22 different directives all at the same time. We couldn’t even understand some of the other directives’ titles. The communication should have been more simple.

2. Focus the campaign – be concrete about what will happen if it’s a yes or a no. In your case, the question regards being in or out of a ‘Britified EU’. Campaigning is about selling a product. But people will be offended if you try to sell EU the same way as you would sell some washing powder. Instead you must explain and repeat.

3. Don’t make a long campaign – the media won’t write the same story for three months in a row. The longer the campaign, the more irrelevant questions will be raised. When Denmark voted for the euro in 2000, the news story was that the dollar was much stronger than the euro. Out of pure economic reasons that would be an advantage for Denmark, since it would ease our exports and create new jobs. But to the people it was a sign of weakness, and who would want to join a weak currency? It was a no.

4. Popular politicians – the government is more popular after than before a general election. Therefore, it’s important to call for the referendum just after a general election. You will have a newly elected PM in the lead of the EU campaign. Furthermore, don’t ever say that you will leave office in the case of a no. It will almost automatically bring all of the opposition to vote no. National politics is more important to individuals, so they would tend use the EU-vote for a national political purpose.

5. Allow non-politicians to debate – let people from civil society, popular individuals with whom people like to identify, and business people contribute. Don’t leave the floor to politicians only.

6. No incomprehensible EU-articles, treaties etc. – don’t ever publicise papers or EU pamphlets that can’t be understood. You would never do that in a national election campaign. There is no reason to complicate matters, as all relevant documents are available on the internet for those interested. Don’t give in, when all the demands on further information are thrown in the air. Answer all the questions in plain English as you would do in national political matters.

7. Don’t wear your blue socks with yellow stars – EU symbols matter, but in the north of Europe EU symbols are viewed negatively. It would take a long time to reverse that tendency, and much longer than the planned campaign.

‘Is there something in it for me?’

The general public will approach the campaign by asking what’s in it for them. These are not the times for EU enthusiasts! We’ve just been through seven years of economic crisis, with lost jobs and welfare. People tend to look inwards during economic crisis.

Moreover our societies today are focused on how to honour individual needs. The willingness to compromise has been pushed into the background. When nobody wants to accept a compromise it is rather difficult to convince people that a binding European cooperation project with 28 countries and half a billion people is attractive.

Hopefully you can convince the British that a lot of international problems like employment and growth, the war against terror, and climate change are questions we can only solve together. At the end of the day the question you have to answer on 23 June is an emotional one: do the British want to stay in the European family or not?

This is an updated version of the article published on 13 March. The original piece was published on 9 March.

About the author

Charlotte Antonsen was a MP and EU-spokesman in the Danish parliament from 1990 – 2007. She took part in four Danish EU referendums. She is a right wing, free market liberal. She now heads a communications agency and has a M.Sc. in economics from The University of Copenhagen.

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