Brexit – never have six letters struck so much fear into the media. A journalist can barely dare to speculate what the future may hold, as by the time their work is published, affairs tend to change drastically! Every piece of the jigsaw comes loaded with repercussions – and on so many different levels.
After all, the UK’s status in the European Union does not impact just one relationship, but 27. And like its co-members, Denmark is waiting with bated breath to see what the UK’s exit will mean for Anglo-Danish relations?
It’s as good time as any to remind ourselves what defines the friendship, trade, and character of the two nations.
Pierre Collignon of the influential newspaper Berlingske recently put forward a list of the UK’s virtues.
These included the country’s sacrifice during WWII, its defence of democratic values, and its championing of human rights, free trade and the transatlantic partnership.
Despite expressing his disappointment what he described as an “ambiguous” Brexit that amounted to a “monumental act of self-harm”, he also praised the UK for its “indispensable voice for a commonsensical and liberal approach to problem-solving”.
It’s precisely these kinds of actions and traits that have helped form the perception of the UK as a world leader. After all, would a certain Norwegian commentator have made such an inspired rant had his country just beaten Greece or Malta? Probably not!
We did own you once!
Of course, many Danes enjoy a little joke about how their ancestors ‘conquered’ much of Britain, and a quick glance at some of the place names on the east coast of England, along with the copious amounts of blonde hair, confirm they’re telling the truth.
And in a sense, history is repeating itself, as when it comes to Brexit, the island has not been as divided since the Vikings’ reign of terror.
Maybe the blood of the Vikings instilled something in the Brits, who would go on to outshine the exploits of their predecessors by creating an empire on which the sun never sets.
In more recent times, war has also brought the two countries together. As allies in World War II, Britain became the liberators of their former conquerors.
A few minor tiffs
But the relationship between the countries hasn’t always been harmonius.
In 1692, a British ambassador to Denmark waged a war of words. Robert Molesworth – an Irishman who was an ancestor of two daughter-in-law of the current English queen, Princess Diana and Sophie Countess of Wessex – rather undiplomatically offered some thoughts on his hosts, describing the country as a nation burdened by heavy taxation, monotonous uniformity and a dearth of dreamers and enthusiasts.
The Dubliner also criticised Danish beer and accused the nation of being nothing more than a bunch of drunks.
And between 1807 and 1814, Britain and Denmark were at each other’s throats again. During what is today known as the Gunboat War, Britain took control of Danish waters for most the period.
And now today, with much uncertainty over the terms at which the UK will leave Europe, the North Sea could again become a battleground – this time over fishing rights.
Nevertheless, the UK and Denmark get on pretty well these days, according to Professor Ole Helmersen, an associate professor with the Department of Intercultural Communication and Management at CBS, who specialises in UK politics and social conditions.
“I believe Anglo-Danish relations are basically defined by mutual trust and cultures which in many ways meet well, although there are of course also major differences,” he told Diplomacy magazine.
“I think Danes in general look up to the UK and see it as a country we collaborate well with – among other places in the EU.”
With France and Germany often seen as leaders in the EU, it’s also interesting to consider what the modern Danish perception of the UK’s role in the EU has been up until now.
“From a Danish perspective I think Britain has been seen as a very valuable member of the EU – as a counterweight to France and Germany,” ventured Helmersen.
Denmark’s impressive proficiency at the English language could also be a factor, added the professor, in motivating Danes to collaborate and share cultural similarities.
Barnes, Bucket, Barnaby
One thing’s for sure: the Danes can’t get enough of English football. Half the country remembers only too well how back when Denmark has only one television channel (up until 1988) they would regularly switch on to get their Anglo fix of the beautiful game. Given Liverpool’s dominance over the decade prior to TV2’s emergence, it’s no surprise to learn that they remain Denmark’s favourite foreign team.
And with so many Danes supporting English teams, they frequently travel there for matches, so the exchange is economic as well as cultural.
It’s also hard not to find a Dane who loves classic British comedies, such as ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ or ‘Fawlty Towers’, or other programs such as ‘Midsomer Murders’, which the Danes know (officially and affectionately) as ‘Barnaby’.
It’s fair to say there’s a certain Danish admiration for the way Britain does things – well, everything other than Brexit.
However, it was recently reported by Bloomberg that a no-deal Brexit could cost Denmark 1.3 percent in lost growth. Furthermore, OECD and IMF studies support the idea that the Danish GDP could be reduced by 1 to 1.3 percent over five to ten years.
“Britain is one of Denmark’s important export markets but it is not nearly as important as it was in the past,” asserted Helmersen.
“When Denmark joined the then EEC in 1973 alongside the UK, more than 30 percent of total Danish exports went to the UK – bacon, butter etc. Today the total figure is around 6 percent.”
While agriculture still accounts for a major part of the 6 percent, a no-deal Brexit would hit the sector harder than any other, contends Helmersen.
So, while Denmark remains Britain’s number one supplier of that essential breakfast ingredient, bacon, when push comes to shove, Denmark’s loyalty is more likely to lie with the EU.
No wonder the UK has quietly been going about securing ‘continuity deals’ – agreements with individual nations to replicate existing trading arrangements in the event of a no-deal Brexit – for example, fish ‘n’ chips has been largely safeguarded thanks to a 200 million pound a year deal with the Faroe Islands, and rum supplies through the Caribbean countries.
Cats and dogs
Denmark, of course, has had its share of issues with the EU. Despite not voting to leave or remain, they have voted on eight issues since 1972, returning three ‘no’ and five ‘yes’ results.
With Denmark’s admiration of Britain and inclination for loyalty towards the EU, the two countries are perhaps more like cats and dogs these days.
The enthusiastic dog is looking on with a furrowed brow and tilted head – it just wants to be friends, but it will run out of patience.
The cat meanwhile is being typically temperamental and walking away … we’ll have to wait and see if its tail is up or between its legs.
This piece was originally printed in Diplomacy. Read the digital version of the magazine here.