The Danish people voted this week against adopting the euro. With nearly 90 percent of eligible voters going to the polls, Denmark rejected the European Union’s single currency by a narrow 53-47 margin. The result is a bitter disappointment for the country’s political and business establishment, which had campaigned hard for joining the currency. But the Danes are well-known Euroskeptics, and this week they lived up to their reputation. The euro will survive, the European project will go forward — more slowly, yes, as other skeptics will now feel vindicated and emboldened. But it will go forward, nonetheless.
Unlike many other EU members, Danes have repeatedly had the chance to express their opinion about union. Denmark has gone to the polls six times to vote on EU matters. In a June 1992 referendum, a razor-thin majority — 50.7 percent to 49.3 percent — kept the country from ratifying the Maastricht Treaty, the agreement that formally created the European Union. Less than a year later, Danes returned to the polls to vote on a renegotiated treaty that contained special exemptions designed to protect Danish sovereignty. That time, they voted in favor of ratification by a 15-point margin.
This history suggests that Denmark’s leaders are unlikely to take no for an answer. There is already speculation they will propose another referendum if the euro recovers from its current slump: It has lost 30 percent of its value since it was launched with great fanfare on Jan. 1, 1999. A stronger currency, a stronger Europe-wide economy and momentum from promised referendums on the euro in Britain and Sweden could change Danish sentiment.
Politics, not economics, is the best explanation for the Danish vote. Danes are prickly about their independence. The “no” forces came from both ends of the political spectrum: nationalists worried about losing national identity and leftists who feared the country would be forced to abandon its generous social-welfare system. The common denominator is plain: Both groups were worried about continued integration into Europe and giving up power to the Brussels bureaucracy. For them, the EU’s decision to punish Austria for bringing the rightwing Freedom Party into government was a worrisome exercise of power and unwarranted interference in the domestic politics of a member state.
After the ballot, the euro was relatively stable in trading, a sign that the market had already discounted the effect of a “no” vote. The coordinated intervention of central banks to support the currency last week was a far more important factor in the minds of traders. Nonetheless, there are fears that Denmark’s currency, the krone, could be the target of speculators.
Other European governments did their part to play down the impact of the vote. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said that rejection would not change his country’s plans to hold a referendum on the euro; the date has not been set. Sweden will hold its own vote, but not for at least two years. Prime Minister Goeran Persson, who supports the currency, conceded that rejection will have an effect on Swedish sentiment.
The claim that the impact of rejection will be felt only within Denmark’s borders is untrue. But one does not have to be a Euroskeptic to think that is a good thing. The chief problem with the European project in recent years has been its democracy deficit. Publics in member countries have had little opportunity to voice their opinions about the pace and scope of integration. Denmark has been an exception, and Europe’s political establishment would do well to heed the Danes’ concerns.
Europe’s leaders are pursuing two objectives at the same time. They want to deepen integration among EU members, with the euro being the most profound expression of that aim. Simultaneously, the union is preparing to expand its membership by admitting several new nations. Either task is daunting; together they are almost impossible.
This week, the Danes did not reject Europe. Instead, they objected to the speed of integration. Opinion polls show that is an issue of growing concern for many Europeans. European union is a bold and ambitious endeavor, which means that support from the hundreds of millions of people who will reside within the EU’s borders is critical. Rather than condemning or ignoring this week’s disappointing result, proponents of the European project should take it to heart. Denmark’s voters have proven in the past to be intelligent and thoughtful citizens. This week, they demanded a say in a process that will reshape their lives. It is not too much to ask.
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