Can Europe Make It?

The UK and Denmark: growing public euroscepticism

The UK and Denmark are two of the most eurosceptic members of the EU, but can the two countries' eurosceptic movements be compared?

Anita Nissen
7 May 2014
President of the Council Van Rompuy with Danish PM Helle-Thorning-Schmidt and Polish PM Tusk. Flickr/EC. Some rights reserved.

President of the Council Van Rompuy with Danish PM Helle-Thorning-Schmidt and Polish PM Tusk. Flickr/EC. Some rights reserved.

As in other EU member states, eurosceptic right-wing populist parties are expected to make huge gains at the European Parliament elections in the United Kingdom and Denmark. In fact, by articulating the feelings of dismay and alienation of their respective electorates, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DPP), are even projected to win the elections. Yet, considering that Denmark and the UK are known as the “eurosceptic pair” within the EU, this development may not be so surprising. 

Ever since joining the EU in 1973, the two states have had complicated relations with the EU. The cooperation has thus been approached with scepticism by both national politicians and citizens at large. This has resulted in a “no” to the Euro, and several opt-outs had to be agreed before the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 could be ratified.

Today, euroscepticism is still found in the two nations’ political scenes. In the UK, both Labour and the Conservatives have switched between favouring and opposing the EU several times in the span of British EU membership. Currently, Labour, together with the Europhile Liberal Democrats, favour membership, while the Conservatives are divided on the issue. Although the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, wants the country to remain in the EU, rebellious party backbenchers have effectively pushed him to announce an In/Out Referendum for 2017. This was heavily endorsed by the UK Independence Party, which wants the UK to leave the EU.

In Denmark, most established parties, including the current government, clearly voice support of EU membership, and wish to abolish the aforementioned opt-outs. Both the Social Democrats (Socialdemokratiet) and the Liberal Party (Venstre) advocate increased EU cooperation. However, several left and right-wing fringe parties are sceptical. One party, the People’s Movement against the EU (Folkebevægelsen mod EU) even wants Denmark to leave the EU. The left-wing Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) opposes the EU in its current shape, as does the Liberal Alliance, which wants the EU to return to the principles of “peace, freedom and free trade”. This stance is somewhat similar to the Danish People’s Party, which also calls for the rolling back of EU powers, with the aim of safeguarding the nation’s sovereignty.

Despite the presence of other eurosceptic parties in both countries, UKIP and the DPP remain the predicted winners at the ballot boxes. This can be ascribed to several factors. For one, both parties enjoy huge media exposure, partly due to steadily increasing vote shares at the EP elections. In 2009, the DPP received 15.3% of the Danish votes, whereas UKIP came second in the UK. Moreover, the two parties’ EU leaders, Nigel Farage (UKIP) and Morten Messerschmidt (DPP), use any opportunity to publicly express critique of the EU’s policies.

Before delving into the arguments they presently employ against the EU, I would like to take a quick look at their rather disparate party trajectories and ideologies. Both parties emerged in the mid-1990s, but whereas the DPP quickly established themselves in the Danish political scene, UKIP was initially a single-issue anti-EU party. Yet, since becoming party leader in 2006, Nigel Farage has directed UKIP’s policies towards the national level as well.

The two parties’ ideologies also differ significantly, despite both being eurosceptic, populist, right-wing parties. The DPP has a chauvinist take on nationalism, arguing that ethnic differences must be preserved. The party thus sees itself as the protector of the Danish nation, culture and values. Adversely, UKIP adheres to a peculiar form of British nationalism. It is a conflation of the beliefs that the EU membership has impinged British sovereignty and that an independent UK could return to the economic and political power it possessed during the heydays of the British Empire - although without the inclusion of foreign colonies.    

The desire to protect their nations’ sovereignty has led both parties to join the European Parliament’s Europe of Freedom and Democracy group. Its constitution asserts that it “favours an open, transparent, democratic and accountable co-operation among sovereign European States and rejects the bureaucratisation of Europe and the creation of a single, centralised European superstate”. Most of UKIP and the DPP’s proclamations about the EU follow this line of reasoning, yet the two disagree about their countries’ EU relationship. Whereas UKIP wants out of the EU, the DPP has changed its stance from wanting to leave the EU to today acknowledging the necessity for Denmark to partake in the free trade opportunities that an EU membership provides.

This change in stance has to be seen in relation with the party’s pursuit of political influence, as it needed to make its arguments less extreme for the other parties to accept its positions. Today, it therefore just wishes to slow down the European integration process, believing that the EU constitutes an ever-growing infringement on Danish sovereignty. UKIP’s wish of British EU withdrawal is not only based on the belief that the UK’s international opportunities would be hugely improved by the move, but also because it, like the DPP, frowns upon Vivian Reding’s dream of a “United States of Europe”.

Despite disagreeing about their countries’ future EU relations, UKIP and the DPP make use of remarkably similar arguments in the EP election debates. As mentioned, both parties strongly oppose the EU’s increasing supranational powers, and the fact that the national governments may not question the EU’s decisions. Concerns about the EU’s toll on the member states’ economies have also been raised by both, UKIP claiming that the EU “membership fees” cost the UK £55 million a day, whilst the DPP refers to the Union’s “squandering” of money for many of its projects. Yet, EU immigration and its strain on national welfare provisions has by far been the biggest topic of contention for both parties in the debates. The two parties employ welfare chauvinist arguments on this matter. They find it “unfair” that people who have not contributed can simply come and claim the benefits that the diligent national citizens have worked so hard to compile. Additionally, both parties push for the reinstatement of border controls, as they wish to restrict the numbers of migrants entering their countries.

Interestingly, both parties harshly criticize the democratic deficits of not only the EU bureaucrats, but also their own national governments. The DPP condemns the social democratic government for blindly abiding to the EU’s commands, alleging that the Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, does this in order to pursue an EU career. UKIP accuses the national MPs of outright lying about the impacts of immigration, and diminishing the problems that the EU member states are currently experiencing. Moreover, the two parties present themselves as being amongst the only parties clearly stating their EU agendas, a claim which is not completely unfounded.

With this continuous questioning of the national governments’ motives, UKIP and the DPP have managed to tap into the growing public distrust of both the EU institutions and national politicians. Furthermore, the populations’ worries about the economy and the consequences of immigration increase the likelihood of them voting for parties that actually seem to be taking these concerns seriously. Thus, using a populist rhetoric, combined with fear-mongering on intra-EU immigration, the DPP and UKIP seem to have struck a chord with the disgruntled sentiments of their respective electors.

Now the question remains what repercussions the likely electoral victories of UKIP and the DPP will have. Both parties have been quite evasive about the political grouping they will join in the next EP term. Yet, they have forcefully negated any prospect of partaking in Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders’ eurosceptic European Alliance for Freedom, seeing its positions as being too radical. As the EP’s actual powers remain limited, and it still will be headed by proponents of the EU, it is doubtful that the prospected increase in eurosceptic parties will have any effect on the EU’s aim of closer union.

Instead, the unfolding of especially the British relations with the EU will be of greater interest to follow. UKIP currently exerts great pressure on David Cameron to arrange a referendum on the EU, supported by a great share of Conservative backbenchers. A UKIP victory at the EP elections could therefore force Cameron to expedite the “In/Out” vote at a much earlier date than 2017. Yet, YouGov polls indicate that Brits wish to remain EU citizens.

In Denmark, the issue of national sovereignty has been a feature of the Danish public’s euroscepticism ever since the country joined the EU. It is therefore unlikely that the DPP’s potential electoral victory will have great consequences for Denmark’s current relations with the EU. It will, however, provide a strong message to the government of not instigating further EU initiatives that will lead to closer integration, despite both the Social Democrats and the Liberal Party having this wish.

Finally, the increased public attention on the two parties could affect their results at the national elections. The DPP is already now looking to increase its vote share substantially at the next general election, whereas UKIP could potentially obtain its first seats in the House of Commons, and be able to exercise more direct pressure on the British government.    

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