Drawing on my personal experience as State-Secretary in Denmark’s Foreign Ministry (1989-1997) I would like to share the following observations of how Denmark tackled the situation in 1992 when a small majority of the Danes rejected the Maastricht Treaty on European Union.
Danish politicians quickly realized that the ‘establishment’ had got it wrong and needed to reach out to the voter. Early October 1992 the Government published a white paper setting out the history and reasons for the Maastricht Treaty implied followed by an analysis of the consequences for Denmark of the no vote. The crucial and most difficult topic was to sketch available options and what were the pros et cons for each one. Seven options were scrutinized.
A memorandum entitled ‘Denmark in Europe’ was circulated 30th of October 1992 – five months after the no vote. It was short and to the point – only four pages. The core was four exemptions: Citizenship, economic and monetary union, defence policy, and justice and home affairs. Any solutions should respect the referendum, be legally binding, and without any time limit. Denmark pledged not to block or pose any difficulties for the other member states’ endeavour to pursue the objectives in the treaty Denmark had opted not to take part in.
The Danes did not vote to leave the EU, but never the less there are two lessons Britain.
The first one is to make up your mind at an early stage defining what exactly you go for. It is a non-starter to float around and leave the initiative to dissenters inside the government, political opposition, academics, and other countries. Few of their ideas will be helpful; most will stir up the mud and convey the impression that the government has lost the plot. Think before moving is wise; keep thinking without moving is not. In the Danish case the government had a clear perception of how to square the circle about a month after the rejection of the Maastricht Treaty, but manoeuvred gently and cautiously gradually getting a grip on the tiller. The dilemma is to give a steer without pushing too hard letting impractical or less propitious alternatives rule themselves out.
The second one is to maintain close contact with partners and even more so convince them that you are in control. Proposals from them and/or EU institutions are potentially poisonous because the public – Danish in 1992; British in 2106 – will feel cornered and confronted with a ‘take it or leave it’ situation – a diktat.
The key is you have a problem, but so does the EU. In 1992-1993 EU partners wanted to ratify the Maastricht Treaty to have an instrument suitable to manage the challenge after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Denmark paled compared to this geopolitical earthquake. In 2016 EU want to move on and tackle the debt crisis, the refugees and migrant crisis, the defence problem in view of messages from the US that defence of Europe does not matter so much as it once did, a more assertive Russia, the risk of Ukraine becoming a failed state, Turkey not any longer in the Western camp, the Middle East in turmoil, North Africa a potential powder keg and China plus India eating into Europe’s share of the global economy. If Britain focus solely on sorting out matters from its point of view disregarding the other member states’ interests and ignoring the broader European agenda the will to compromise from the other side will wane away.
Britain carries more weight than Denmark, but if forced to choose, the cor e EU will opt to maintain treaty provisions deemed vital for their future even if the consequence is to see Britain leaving without agreements on broadly speaking anything. In their view the chaos will primarily hit Britain and for them be by far the lesser evil. They do not accept to be stopped in policies designed to pursue fundamental strategic goals regarded as a question of survival.
The British negotiating hand can be summarized rather brutally in the following way: The core of the EU are not disposed to start dismantling European integration put in place since 1952 to accommodate a country that has decided to take back control and travel alone in the era of globalisation.