PM rejects opposition call for swift EU referendum

After years of pushing for a referendum to end Denmark’s opt-outs on EU defence and justice co-operation, Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s party now argues that the time is not right to set a date

The government has turned down two central demands made by the opposition during negotiations for a shared EU policy.

Lead opposition party Venstre has demanded that the government hold a referendum simultaneously with next year’s European Parliament election over whether to abolish two of Denmark’s three current opt-outs on EU co-operation.

They also want the government to prepare a report that examines how the European right to free movement is threatening Danish welfare services such as student grants, child support cheques and unemployment benefits.

PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Socialdemokraterne) is a fan of neither the referendum nor the report that Venstre demanded before the summer holiday following revelations that Denmark would have to extend grants to EU students at a cost of 200 million kroner a year.

“The analysis has already been done,” Thorning-Schmidt told Jyllands-Posten newspaper, referring to a report about the availability of welfare services that was carried out by the Employment Ministry in 2011.

“What we need to do now is act. […] We now need to ensure that our social services are robust enough to cope with the free movement of labour," the PM said. "It’s really positive that people can travel across borders and are able to live in other countries. It helps many people. But we also need to find a way to organise our services so that they are robust enough to cope with it. Each ministry needs to take a pragmatic look at the situation.”

In a speech in Norway yesterday, Venstre leader Lars Løkke Rasmussen called for a swift referendum on whether to abolish the opt-outs on co-operation with EU justice and defence affairs. The justice opt-out is proving particularly problematic as it will force Denmark to pull out of the European police agency Europol.

“Denmark is set to leave the Europol co-operation and that changes things significantly because it is an area in which we traditionally have fought for Denmark to remain at the core,” Venstre’s political spokesperson Ellen Trane Nørby told Jyllands-Posten. “We think this needs to be part of our shared EU policy.”

The newly-appointed minister for European affairs, Nick Hækkerup (Socialdemokraterne) agreed that there was a need for a referendum but said it was too soon to set a date.

“It’s a bad idea to commit to a referendum date ten months in the future,” Hækkerup told Jyllands-Posten. “It would be better to set a date once we’ve read the political landscape and it makes sense to have it.”

Coalition partner Radikale is also opposed to setting a date but commended Rasmussen for wanting to hold a vote. During its ten years in power, Venstre failed to hold a referendum to abolish the opt-outs despite rising concern that they would end up undermining Denmark’s interests.

While there is broad political support for abolishing the justice and defence opt-outs, the Danish public has been more sceptical about the EU following the debt crisis. If the referendum to drop the two opt-outs were to fail, it would be a major political blow which is why the government has been waiting to hold a referendum until EU support rebounds.