Considering that the Danish EU treaty opt-outs are considered to be politically important, the most interesting aspect of Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s discussion of the possibility of an all-or-nothing referendum in 2011 was the lack of reporting. The news ticked in on my computer at 3 am last night (yes, I have a rather warped sleep cycle) and I had expected Second Coming of Christ-style headlines on the Danish news-sites.
Instead – well, let’s discuss this later.
One reason for this could be that Løkke’s suggestion was aired in a meeting with Liberal MEPs; hardly the kind of setting which makes big waves in the Danish political pond. It’s in Brussels, you are supposed to be EU-positive, etc, etc.
Still, there might be four reasons for Løkke to push for a referendum before the summer break in June.
1. The Franco-German Euro-pact has created a window of opportunity. As the 2000 referendum showed, it is very hard to run an effective campaign if there is no visible reason to do so. The spectre of Denmark being marginalised in the EU following the adoption of the revised rules for economic cooperation could be used to motivate doubters to vote “yes” to the EMU.
2. Denmark will be taking over as EU chairman in 2012 and this could also work as a window of opportunity. As it is, Denmark’s role will be circumscribed by the opt-outs and while this is something which will be felt mostly by ministers and civil servants, it could be put to use as an argument for abolishing the opt-outs.
3. A recent poll showed a marginal majority for abolishing the opt-outs in an all-or-nothing referendum.
4. The opposition is split. In theory, the Social Democrats want to abolish all opt-outs while SF wants to keep the EMU opt-out. Obviously, this can be used by the government in a campaign.
On the other hand, there are also arguments against:
1. The government hasn’t done the ground work for a referendum. Instead, the strategy of first Anders Fogh Rasmussen and then Lars Løkke Rasmussen has been to postpone any discussions and decisions.
2. We are extremely close to the general election and the EU debate is likely to be drowned in the noise from the general political debate.
3. While the Liberals and the Conservatives may agree on abandoning the opt-outs, there are also disagreements among the centre-right parties. Both DF and Liberal Alliance oppose full Danish membership of the EMU.
4. The public opinion is fickle and polls have shown varying results, especially with regard to the EMU opt-out. If we have a serious campaign – either with each opt-out decided independently or in a all-or-nothing style – the EMU question and its implication for Danish economic policy may drown out the other two issues.
Lars Løkke Rasmussen is a curious politician who plays with high stakes and he could be the type of political leader who would hold the political agenda hostage. On the other hand, the prospect of a defeat in a referendum in the run-up to a general election will cause cooler heads to ask for restraint. Or to conclude: I would be surprised to see a referendum in 2011.