Two political parties are placing pressure on the government to hold referendums on whether to increase EU co-operation. They are referendums the government wants to avoid at all costs.
The problems is that while joining the EU patent court and banking union enjoy broad political support – 80 percent of MPs would vote in favour – latent euroscepticism among the Danish population means they risk being defeated in a referendum.
These referendums would only take place because of a lack of support from Enhedslisten, which sits on the far-left, and Dansk Folkeparti on the far-right.
Without the support of one of the parties, the government is just shy of the five-sixths parliamentary majority it needs to pass laws that involve a loss of sovereignty.
The two parties insist that both do, though the government argues that it can join the banking union without surrendering sovereignty.
Five-sixths or a referendum
The government has acknowledged that it needs the five-sixths majority to vote in favour of joining the patent court and has been trying to gather the necessary support.
They want to avoid a referendum because the electorate is far less enthusiastic about the EU than their elected officials. A Eurobarometer poll from May found that 45 percent of Danes do not trust the EU.
The risk of asking a eurosceptic population to approve of increasing EU co-operation is so great that both the current and former government have put off holding a referendum on abolishing two of Denmark’s four EU opt-outs, even though most political parties and EU experts agree they are undermining national interests.
Pesky EU opt-outs
These two opt-outs, on defence and justice, were granted to Denmark in 1993 after Danes rejected the Maastricht Treaty the year before. The four opt-outs, which also apply to citizenship and allow Denmark to remain outside the Eurozone, were granted in order to allow it to stay in the then-European Community.
Among the consequences of the opt-outs, Denmark will have to leave the EU policing agency Europol after the EU strengthens its role and responsibility in tackling cross-border crime.
Despite not holding a referendum during the two years he was in power, Venstre leader Lars Løkke Rasmussen this August called on the government to get the referendums on the opt-outs over with.
And earlier this week Rasmussen implored the government to gather the parliamentary support needed to join the patent court.
“I must honestly say that I am deeply worried about the possibility of raising the needed public support for a patent court,” Rasmussen said at the annual meeting of business lobby Dansk Industri on Tuesday. “I call on the prime minister in the strongest possible manner to engage herself and lead on this issue and start the parliamentary negotiations that are needed to establish the necessary majority for the patent court.”
Enhedslisten remains the only party firmly opposed to the patent court, which they argue could have a detrimental impact on software development.
“We have already seen that the EU’s patent office has time and again challenged the law that prevents patents from being granted on software,” Nikolaj Villumsen, the party’s EU spokesperson, said, adding that the patent court would sanction this decision.
“This would destroy the free and open development of software.”
Industry lobby backs patent court
The EU patent court, Villumsen argued, would make it easier for large European businesses to challenge small Danish companies with violating their patents, but Dansk Industri argued that the court would actually favour small businesses.
“It’s incomprehensible that there are parties in parliament who won’t vote for the patent court,” DI managing director Karsten Dybvad said on Tuesday. “I am sending a strong recommendation to all parties to support the patent court and support the many Danish businesses that exist by translating ideas into new products.”
It is uncertain how the government will respond to DF’s demands, though it is highly unlikely it will agree to a referendum on the banking union, both because the central bank supports it, and because the government’s position thus far is that it does not constitute a loss of sovereignty.
The final route to DF’s support would be a tit-for-tat move that would involve introducing rules that restrict welfare benefits for foreign nationals. Recent EU rulings make it easier for EU citizens to qualify for student grants and cash benefits. This is something DF argues undermines the Danish welfare state.
The EU is unlikely to approve of measures that limit welfare for EU citizens who are entitled to it, however.
There is no immediate solution to the deadlock, though it does give the opportunity to demonstrate the disproportionate power that the eurosceptic parties wield in limiting Denmark’s involvement in EU institutions that are unlikely to undermine Denmark’s interests.