22 November 2022

The EU and Denmark: Golden anniversary at a time of democratic unrest and upheaval


At the turn of the year, it has been 50 years since Denmark entered the European Community, which was the name of the union at the time. Professor Marlene Wind, who has spent almost 30 years researching the Union, takes a closer look at the relation between the EU and Denmark and highlights some of the greatest challenges facing the Union.

EU flag and Danish Flag side by side
Flags in front of the European Parliament. Photo: Su Westerman, Flickr

Let us begin at the beginning: Why did Denmark even want to part of the EC, which was the name of the Union back in 1972, when the Danish population voted in favour of the community?

Marlene Wind: “To Denmark, it was very much a matter of getting access to a market where we could sell our goods. For many, many years, we had been a small, outward-oriented export nation. Great Britain used to buy 80 per cent of our goods, but both Great Britain and Denmark recognised the need for a united European market. Others considered the EC a greater, more political entity.”

Has this changed? Or does Denmark still benefit mainly from the EU market?

“Today, we have access to a huge market, but over the years, the EU has changed a lot and given us so much more. You see, in time we were forced to realise that successfully integrating markets of this size requires political collaboration. You need to create a market with one set of standards, not 27. That is, shared environmental standards, occupational health and safety standards, a competition policy and all kinds of other things. For example, how many hours a day can workers spend on a scaffold? If they can spend more hours on a scaffold in one country than in others, well, then building bridges and houses will be cheaper in that country.”

“But part of the story of the EU – that we have to collaborate on a more political level too – has not been broadly communicated at home. None of our politicians want to tell that story. I think that is one of the reasons why our relationship with the EU has been so turbulent. If you constantly tell people that the Union is dead, well, then people start to wonder why we need a Maastricht Treaty, supranational rules and all kinds of other things.”

Is this aversion to tell the story of mutual, political dependency unique to Denmark? Have the other member states been more open and accepting?

“They most certainly have. A lot of other European countries are constitutional democracies, where protecting the individual citizen is key. They have powerful courts that protect the citizens from the state and a completely different view of the EU as something that protects us from autocracy and decline. Only Great Britain and Denmark had this commerce-oriented approach to begin with. Look at Portugal, Spain and Greece, for example. They are dictatorships-turned-democracies. They too saw membership of the EU as a way to save or cement their democracy. And so did Germany, France and the Benelux countries after the war. It was all a question of distancing oneself from Fascism and illiberalism.” 

Russia’s war in Ukraine has brought war back to Europe. How will this affect the EU democratically, financially and security-wise?

“We are witnessing the return of geopolitics. The key question is whether we are able to change our perception of the EU as a market to an actor on the international stage. Other member states are experiencing a serious change of attitude. In Germany, social democrats and pacifists from the extreme left who have spent their entire lives promoting disarmament suddenly want to make peace through rearmament. Scholz’ Zeidenwende (Editor’s note: turning point) is an example of that. Denmark too needs to decide whether we can be part of something that is far more political than it used to be.

Do you think the current focus on security policy will strengthen the Union, or is the war in Ukraine and the resulting misery and financial insecurity more likely to create division in Europe?

“That is the key question. Either the Union breaks down as energy prices and inflation continue to soar, making furious Europeans take to the streets and blame the EU. National politicians will no doubt help them pass the problem on to Brussels. Or we will get through the crisis and manage to get the green transition going surprisingly fast and free ourselves of Russian gas. If we do manage to establish a sustainable energy production in Europe in record time, possibly by allowing the nuclear power plants to continue to operate for a while longer, I think we will find that the Union has been strengthened. But with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine it is hard to tell.”

Concurrently with the external threat in the form of Russia, the Union’s democratic principles are being challenged from within – not least by nationalist right-wing tendencies in Eastern Europe and some parts of Southern Europe. What is the reason for this tendency, and what should the EU’s response be?

“Well, it is a form of nationalistic tribalism. Trump and Brexit are good examples. Some believe this tendency is a response to a financial situation – people feel left out in the cold when it comes globalisation, and this causes them to turn to the national level. My research suggests that this would be to simplify things. The financial element can help explain it, but it also has something to do with the extremely cynical politicians that are suddenly popping up everywhere, and whose answer to the question ‘How do I get myself re-elected?’ is ‘By making enemies.’ In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has identified his enemies – Muslims and the ’woke’ multicultural EU elite – which is evident from posters on lampposts and in squares throughout Budapest, which I visited last week to give a talk.”

“As you build such a story, you need to control all free media and make it almost impossible to express criticism. You lower the retirement age of judges and replace them with your loyal supporters. And you maintain a network of oligarchs who profit from various EU contracts. They buy media consortia, who put broadcasting licences out to tender. It is a spider’s web of power relations that feeds itself. Of course, some people choose to be right-wing nationalists, but I would argue that it is mainly a top-down strategy. By transferring a lot of issues from the political sphere to the cultural or value-based sphere, they become non-debatable. Culture and values are something we feel, not something we can discuss. This ends all debate.”

Orbán has been prime minister of Hungary for 12 years now. What do the other member states think of his way of doing things?

“His regime is what you would call an ‘electoral autocracy’. They hold regular elections, but it is not a democracy. I am sure a lot of people wonder why a country with that approach to democracy is allowed to be a member of the EU. Orbán’s breakdown of democracy is an example of autocratic legalism. It is conducted from within democracy institution, which means that he is using democracy to break down democracy. The country still has a parliament, the prime minister is formally re-elected, and the courts are still referred to as independent, but the judges are not. But when a democracy is broken down from the inside, few people notice.”

And is that why the EU has a hard time trying to stop it?

“Yes, exactly. That is why I have been calling for better tools for measuring the democratic decline. We need to understand how democracies can be broken down using democracy tools. This should be of interest to the EU, as you have to be a democracy to be a member of the Union. We run around telling people: ‘You will get no EU funding if you do not respect the independent courts.’ But what about us? Are we any better?”

I suppose there is a huge risk that opposition to the EU will continue to increase, and that the autocratic leaders of Eastern Europe will continue to isolate themselves if the EU suddenly begins to make a lot of demands?

“That is the view you get in Brussels when you ask: ‘Why do not you do something about it?’ Why do we accept the sacking, transfer and public shaming of Polish judges who ‘rule against the government’? Of course, there is a risk that a country like Hungary may side with Russia if we demand too much of them. The Poles, on the other hand, hate Russia, and in fact, as much as 70-75 per cent of the population in both Poland and Hungary are pro-EU. But I do not think the public is able to put two and two together. They do a lot of EU bashing, but they do not really want to leave the EU because that is where the money comes from. Membership of the EU has been extremely beneficial to a country like Poland, which has seen a huge increase in wealth. So we should not be afraid to make democracy demands.”

Why do the member states have to have the same view on democracy?

“You cannot with peace of mind move your window factory to Poland if it does not have independent courts and independent public prosecutors. I spoke to a guy from Velux once who said: ‘Operating in Poland has simply become too risky.’ If you fall out with the authorities, e.g. over a building licence, you cannot be certain that they will abide by EU procurement rules as Polish judges are not independent. It is not a question of a country’s right to decide for themselves – the entire EU market depends on our ability to trust the member states’ systems of justice to be democratic.”

What can the EU really do to get these countries back on a democratic track?

“A while ago, the European Commission considered withholding 65 per cent of Hungary’s EU funding due to the high level of corruption in the country. This would have had huge consequences for the Hungarians, and it would have been the first time the EU used the rule of law mechanism adopted in 2020. However, there is reason to believe that Orbán once again managed to twist the Commission and the other heads of state around his little finger when he – in order to get the funding – promised to create a new national anti-corruption institute. But of course, an institute like that will not be able to operate in a country like Hungary without independent courts, independent public prosecutors and independent media?”

So we are trying, but we do not have the right tools to stop the democratic decline?

“Yes, the member states lack the tools to fight corruption, and we are still unable to monitor the development. We need a new index for measuring democracy – one that is based on existing indexes, but far more detailed and capable of spotting democratic decline within the framework of a democracy. This would enable us to document step by step the breakdown of democracy from within via known institutions and often with the support of a political majority. This would make it a lot easier for the European Commission and everyone else to stop the democratic decline we are seeing today.”

Let us return to our own attitude towards the EU: Where is Denmark headed vis-à-vis the EU?

“Well, we have just abolished the EU defence opt-out – a decision supported by a majority of 66 per cent of the voters. No one had seen that coming. So to some extent I believe we have to realise that the EU project is a political one – and that it is not all that dangerous. It is about exercising sovereignty together; it is not sovereignty as a zero-sum game.”

But even though we have abolished the defence opt-out, some Danish voters and politicians still argue that Denmark is a small player in the EU and therefore limited to paying and not being heard. Are they wrong?

“Yes. We have to stop looking at it this way. First, the value of having access to a market this size is huge. Companies are able to sell heaters, windows and medicine in 27 different countries – with the same standards. If you only look at our contribution to the EU budget and what we get in return, you will miss the larger picture.”

“Second, our EU membership is very much about being a pioneer country and a role model, and when it comes to the digital and green sectors, Denmark is a major player. We may not excel at immigration or including our foreign labour force. But when it comes to the green transition, Denmark is truly a pioneer country, technologically as well, and throughout the EU, people look at how we do things and listen to what we have to say. The same applies to our work/life balance. We have flexicurity and virtually no unemployment. Here too other countries look at us and ask: ‘How the devil did they manage that? How do they manage to maintain a humane lifestyle where you do not have to work 12 hours a day and an extremely high level of productivity, innovation and adaptability?’ So, yes, people do listen to Denmark. The size of the population is unimportant. What matters is that you get good ideas, and Denmark most certainly does.”


Marlene Wind
Institut for Statskundskab
Mail: mwi@ifs.ku.dk 
Telefon: +45 35 32 34 29

Simon Knokgaard Halskov
Presse- og kommunikationsrådgiver
Mail: sih@samf.ku.dk 
Phone: +45 93 56 53 29


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