You never know with referendums! A view from Denmark

Comrade Foot/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)The Danes have had eight EU referendums to date. Charlotte Antonsen, a veteran campaigner and former Danish MP, relates her experience of these and explains the mechanics of influencing a referendum vote. This piece is part of the UCL European Institute’s first guest editor week on openDemocracy.

All of Denmark is holding our breath awaiting the outcome of your vote on June the 23. In Denmark we have had eight EU referendums in the last four decades. As a former member of parliament and an EU-spokesman from 1990 to 2007, I’ve been directly involved in planning and campaigning four of them. Below I will lay out some of the lessons that the UK may draw from this experience, and explain what happened in our last EU referendum in December, the rejection of which came as a big surprise to many.

Danish politicians have asked all kinds of questions in the different referendums over the years. Each time the people have answered yes or no. But it wouldn’t be right to say that the Danes actually answered the EU-related question that was put to them on the ballot paper. Many studies over the years have also shown that. The outcome of a referendum depends rather on the popularity of the politicians, what else is on the news agenda, and a lot of other things that have nothing to do with the EU.

For instance, the primary message from people voting ‘no’ has been that they want ‘less EU’. This was the case when we voted on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. No voters often gave as their reason that they wouldn’t give up more sovereignty to the European Union.

The year after, in May 1993, we voted on Maastricht again, but this time on the new basis of four opt-outs negotiated in Edinburgh after the first no vote in 1992. Our yes campaign explained that what was now on offer was no longer such a big step, and we promised new referendums on each opt-out if we were to change the Danish position. The four opt-outs – the euro, EU defense policy, internal affairs including Europol, ‘European’ citizenship – are still in function more than 20 years later.

Only three months ago, in December 20015, we saw another version of politicians asking the people one question but getting an answer for another. One of the opt-outs, Europol, was given a referendum and according to the opinion polls almost everyone supported our participation in the system.

The no-parties had a problem, so they adapted. Now the no-parties also said yes to Europol. But they still advocated voting no in the referendum. They used the argument about wanting less EU to point their fingers at the 22 small EU directives, mainly on business matters, that were also part of the referendum. In other words, the no-argument was adapted to the polls. It now went: ‘You can vote no at the referendum and stay in Europol. Who would want to throw us out? We could just negotiate another, better Europol deal with the other 27 EU-countries, the European Commission and the European Parliament. No problem.’

Unfortunately, this new story worked. People voted no. They wanted to stay in Europol but with less EU. And now the situation is that we will have to leave Europol next year if nothing new happens. The thing is, to the vast majority of Danish voters, EU-matters are simply not important. This makes them easy prey for populist propaganda. The less people know, the more easily they are misled.

Seven lessons for Brexit campaigners

What can the UK’s campaigners learn from this latest Danish episode? One thing is sure about a referendum: you never know. No matter how well you plan, something unexpected can always pop up.

But of course there are good ways to prepare. My seven pieces of concrete advice  from a Danish perspective would be:

1. Make it simple – The last Danish referendum was about Europol and 22 additional directives. We couldn’t even understand some of their titles. Since practically no one wanted Denmark to leave Europol, the no camp thus pushed the campaign to focus on these other directives. The yes-parties used a good deal of their campaign for trying to explain 22 directives. It worked – for the no-movement.

2. Focus the campaign – Only have one main question. In your case, this is ‘in or out of an EU that your government’s negotiations have made more British (at least from our perspective on the continent)’.

3. Don’t make a long campaign – the media won’t write the same story for three months in a row. The longer the campaign, the more irrelevant questions will be raised. When we voted for the euro in 2000 the big thing was that the dollar was much stronger than the euro. Out of pure economic reasons that would be an advantage for Denmark (it would help our exports). But to the people it was a sign of weakness – who wants a weak currency (apart from the UK)?

4. Popular politicians – the best moment to call a referendum is just after a general election. You have done that. In your case, the freshly elected government has not entirely has joined its PM in leading the pro-EU campaign. As a PM, avoid any impression that you would leave office in the case of a negative vote (if indeed you can). Any such promise automatically makes the entire opposition vote no. National politics is more important to people than EU politics, and they would use the EU-vote for a national political purpose.

5. Allow non-politicians to debate – let people from civil society, popular individuals with whom people like to identify, contribute. Don’t leave the floor to politicians only.

6. Be concrete about what will happen in the case of an in or an out vote – answer all the questions in plain English as you would do in national political matters. Never give in to demands on distributing, and explaining, all kinds of detailed and incomprehensible EU-papers or articles. You would never distribute ‘the budget’ or other British law proposals by mail to all households either.

7. Don’t wear your blue socks with yellow stars – campaigning is about selling a product. But people will be offended if you try to sell EU the same way as you would sell some washing powder.

On some level, every EU-referendum is about the question of staying in or leaving. Our societies today are focused on how best to meet  individual needs. This has made us lose our sense, and willingness, of compromise.  Finding compromise in EU politics has become ever more difficult – a problem for a union of 28 countries.

The British government has negotiated a very concrete and meaningful deal and is now asking the people to seal the deal. Opt-outs, once agreed, are there to stay, at least in the Danish experience. We got four opt-outs in 1992 after our no to the Maastricht Treaty. And we’ve still got them, by and large, 24 years on.

In your case the no vote will give you even less EU, which could lead one to predict that the people will indeed vote no. We shall see. I believe that neither the Brits nor the Danes want to leave the EU. There is too much at stake. After all, we are both historically strong trading nations.

From an entirely self-centred point of view, of course, I should wish for an out vote. This would likely create business for my communications firm. When British ministers are no longer seated at the table I’m sure that British companies will look for other ways to get a say. There will be a windfall for Europe’s lobbyists and communications specialists. But from a broader perspective, it would be best for me – and for Denmark – if you stayed. Please do. Although, it would be an interesting scenario if little Denmark with its 5.5 million people became more powerful than the United Kingdom on the international political scene!


Charlotte Antonsen was a MP and EU-spokesman in the Danish parliament from 1990 – 2007.


This piece is co-published with openDemocracy.


Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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