I’ll indulge myself in a note on one very specific part in prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s opening speech: An issue which has been lurking in the background of Danish politics during 2013 is ratifying the rules governing the European Patent Court. The problem for the government is that establishing the EPC would mean transferring sovereignty from Denmark to the EU and that the decision to ratify would follow section 20 of the Danish constitution – i.e. the government would either need a 5/6 majority or submit the proposal to a referendum.1
If we look as Danish EU referendums, the experience has been mixed: The 1972, 1986, 1993 and 1998 referendums ended with “yes”-votes while the 1992 and 2000 referendums famously ended with defeats for the parties supporting European integration, so two in six referendums have ended in defeat and the government would have an incentive for striking a deal with one of the two parties opposing further integration, the Danish People’s Party or the Red-Green Alliance. Besides the government, the Liberals, the Conservatives and Liberal Alliance already support the ratification but we are still some votes short of the 5/6 majority.
With her statement in the opening speech, Helle Thorning-Schmidt has set up a deadline: There will either have to be an agreement in the early spring or the government will call for a referendum in conjunction with the 2014 elections to the European Parliament.
Now, let us assume that there will not be any agreement with either DPP or RGA and speculate in the effects for the European election.
First, we have had one referendum at the same time as a European election: The 2009 referendum on the Succession Act and here the effect appears to have been an increase in turn-out from 48 to 59.5%. Turn-out at earlier EU referendums has varied from some 76% in 1986 and 1998 to 90% in 1972. Given the highly technical nature of the issue, I would expect 75% to be the upper limit with 45-50% – the typical turn-out at European Parliament elections – as the lower limit. 60-65% would be a reasonable guess.
The two next big questions are a) how will the expected increase in turn-out affect the outcome of the EP election and b) will voters make their decision in the referendum based on their position on the EPC issue, on European integration in general or on Danish politics.
Question a) is very difficult to answer – the outcome of the 2009 election was linked with changes in the “European” party system but in many ways the 2009 election was closer to national results than previous EP elections. We are also in unchartered territory with question b) as the only previous European referendum which has centered on a single issue was the 2000 EMU referendum. Here, the government and the “yes”-parties lost, but the rejection of the EMU was the result of a general rejection of economic integration rather than a wish to give an unpopular government a bloody nose. Denmark also has a track record of voting on the issue of European integration rather than making referendums into second-order elections. At the same time, the EMU was and remains much closer to the heart of European integration than the EPC so I would expect Danish Euro-scepticism to make less of an impact.
If I were to give advice to parties supporting the EPC, I would argue that they should focus on the link between the EPC and the Single Market, even at the cost of a lower level of interest and turn-out. Parties opposing the EPC, on the other hand, should try to link the Court to a general logic of European integration and initiatives to increase the economic integration.
Update: A Twitter follower who knows much more about the subject of patents than I do pointed my attention to this introduction to the agreement and the patent court. So just for clarification or to add to the confusion, the EPC is the agreement, the UPC the institution.
- Just to make one thing clear: Like most Danes, I’m lost when it comes to the general question of the pros-and-cons of specific patent regulations [↩]