Editorial | The 0.1 percent

A tenth of a percent is as tiny a fraction as it sounds. To visualise how small an amount it is, pick up a metre stick. One tenth of one percent of the total length is a millimetre.

Things that small tend to get ignored. Yet Danish lawmakers last week were up in arms over an EU decision that will force the state to spend an additional 0.1 percent in child benefit payments each year.

And with good reason.

First, the maths: Denmark pays out about 15 billion kroner annually in child benefit payments. According to the government’s own calculations, the EU decision, which struck down a law requiring citizens of EU countries to have worked for two years in Denmark before becoming eligible for child benefits, will add an additional 15 million kroner to that tally.

You can do a lot with 15 million kroner, and for the children who receive the money it could have an enormous benefit. But in the grand scheme of things, such an amount wouldn’t be worth haggling over during budget negotiations. In the grander scheme of things, though, the additional payment – or rather the message it sends – represents an example of how difficult it has become for member states to determine their own legislation.

Should it wish to do so, the government can probably find an easy way out of the situation by recasting the child benefit allowance as an income tax deduction. Lawmakers in Copenhagen, however, will still be left worrying what law Brussels will strike down next. A similar ruling made it easier for foreign students to qualify for SU benefits, and in recent years the Eurosceptics have been left railing over various other decisions, including limits on border controls and immigration legislation.

The easiest thing to do would be to write off their indignation as a knee-jerk reaction to decisions by Brussels that didn’t suit them. That, though, would only gloss over the real problem of increasing resentment over the EU’s one-size-fits-all decisions.

Most recently, this disaffection has taken hold in the Netherlands of all places. One of the founding members of what is today’s EU, the Netherlands consistently backs further integration, but the mantra now being repeated by that country’s government is “European where necessary, national where possible”.

The government has already sought to allay fears that last week’s decision will “spread like rings in water” and undermine the social welfare state. But those reassurances fail to focus on the wider problem.

It is precisely the sentiment expressed in the Dutch attitude that lies behind the argument of those in Denmark complaining about last week’s decision. Few of them would disagree the EU brings with it no benefits, but for them, when it comes to national sovereignty, 0.1 percent is an enormous amount.