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Steering a path away from Europe

Steering a path away from Europe

UK needs to listen to partners

by Joergen Oerstroem Moeller in Singapore

Wed 12 Oct 2016

As state secretary in Denmark’s foreign ministry in 1989-97, I observed first-hand how the Danish government responded in 1992 when a small majority of Danes rejected the Maastricht treaty on European union. I believe Denmark's experience has important lessons for Prime Minister Theresa May's government as it attempts to negotiate the UK's path through Brexit.

In October 1992, the government published a white paper setting out the history of and reasons for the Maastricht treaty, followed by an analysis of the consequences for Denmark of the No vote. The crucial and most difficult task was to sketch available options, and the advantages and disadvantages of each one.

A memorandum entitled ‘Denmark in Europe’ was circulated on 30 October 1992 – five months after the No vote. It was short and to the point. At its core were four exemptions: on citizenship; economic and monetary union; defence policy; and justice and home affairs. Any solutions should respect the referendum, be legally binding, and have no time limit. Denmark pledged not to hinder efforts by other member states to pursue treaty objectives in which it had opted not to take part.

Denmark ultimately decided to remain in the European Union. But its experience has two lessons for the UK as it weighs its Brexit options.

First, the UK should decide exactly what it wants at an early stage. I am not sure that Theresa May knows what she wants, and neither does anyone else. I hope this will become clearer soon. If there are too many ideas circulating, including from dissenters inside the government, this will muddy the waters and give the impression the government has lost the plot.

In Denmark’s case, the government discerned a route out of the crisis a matter of weeks after the Maastricht treaty was rejected, but it manoeuvred cautiously, gradually gaining a grip on the tiller. The dilemma is to give a steer without pushing too hard, allowing impractical or less propitious alternatives to rule themselves out.

Second, the UK should maintain close contact with its European partners, and even more so convince them that it is in control. Proposals from external parties, particularly EU institutions, are potentially highly counter-productive; the public will feel confronted with a ‘take it or leave it’ situation.

In 1992-93, EU partners wanted to ratify the Maastricht treaty to provide them with a mechanism capable of addressing challenges after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Denmark’s situation paled in comparison with this geopolitical earthquake. In 2016, by contrast, the EU wants to move on from Brexit and tackle its debt, refugee, and security crises. If Britain addresses only matters from its point of view, disregarding other member states’ interests and ignoring the broader European agenda, its partners’ desire to compromise will wane.

Britain carries more economic and diplomatic weight than Denmark. But if forced to choose, the core EU countries will opt to maintain treaty provisions they view as vital to their future, even if the result is Britain leaving the EU without agreement on most issues. In their view, the chaos will primarily affect the UK – for them a far lesser evil. They will not accept being prevented from pursuing policies designed to pursue fundamental strategic goals.

The core EU countries are not disposed to start dismantling European integration to accommodate a country that has decided to travel alone in the era of globalisation.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and Singapore Management University, and a former State Secretary at the Danish Foreign Ministry.

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