VEJLE, Denmark (Reuters) - A Danish rightwing party expected to hold the balance of power after an election later this month has endorsed a British-style referendum on EU membership, a position that could crack the pro-EU consensus of northern Europe’s political elite.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who won re-election last month, says he wants to renegotiate aspects of Britain’s relationship with the EU and hold an in-out referendum on membership by the end of 2017.
His plans have energized skeptics elsewhere in the European Union, where parties critical of Brussels are gaining ground.
Danish People’s Party (DF) leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl said the reforms sought by Cameron were similar to those his party was seeking: limits to access to benefits for EU migrants, cutting the EU’s budget and bureaucracy, and ending a commitment to an “ever closer union” contained in the Treaty of Rome.
“We have seen the things David Cameron has pointed out are very much the same things that we would like to change when it comes to our membership of the EU,” Dahl told Reuters.
“Denmark is a very small country, but Britain is very big. It’s much easier for Britain to have a new deal than Denmark.”
A referendum on Denmark exiting the EU remains an unlikely prospect for now. The ruling Social Democrats and the main opposition centre-right Liberals both support a different referendum - not to leave the EU but to deepen ties with it by signing up to its common justice policy.
But polls predict the DF will place third in the June 18 election with close to 20 percent of the vote, giving it leverage over the Liberals, either as a potential coalition partner or as an outside supporter of a minority government, a role it has played in the past.
Dahl said he did not believe that his party joining a coalition for the first time was “the most realistic outcome”, but that if it did so, a referendum on EU membership would be one of its main demands.
“The EU question is one of our top priorities, so of course it is difficult to see a situation after the general election where we join a government and can’t fight for this,” Dahl told Reuters after dinner with party members just outside the small western Danish town of Vejle.
Once a force on the political fringe, the DF’s popularity has surged, mirroring the rise of the far right across Europe.
Like Britain’s anti-EU party UKIP, the DF earned new legitimacy by coming out top in last year’s European Parliament election with 27 percent of the vote.
Danes have traditionally been among the EUs most euro-sceptical citizens, securing special treaty “opt-outs” from Europe’s common defense, justice and monetary policies. Voters rejected joining the euro in a referendum in 2000, against the advice of the government which favored the common currency.
Marlene Wind, Copenhagen University professor and director of the Centre for European Politics, said the traditional parties are more enthusiastic about Europe than voters.
“We have an EU-positive elite which is very engaged and understands the connection between trade and welfare. This has never really been fully understood by Danes,” she said.
Whenever EU policies go beyond the narrow requirements of the single market to embrace political aims, she said, “then Danes resist tremendously.”
Finn Larsen, a 67-year-old retired truck driver, expressed the view succinctly: “I don’t like the idea of someone sitting a foreign country deciding every little bit of what we are to do in Denmark.”
Nevertheless, unlike in Britain where UKIP wants to leave the EU outright and so do many in Cameron’s Conservative Party, few Danes actually want to pull out of the bloc altogether.
Dahl, the DF leader, said he wants Denmark to stay in, but access to the country’s welfare system, one of the most generous in the EU, must be limited for newcomers.
“If you want people to be happy about the membership then we need to reform things,” he said.
Additional reporting by Teis Jensen and Annabella Pultz Nielsen; Editing by Peter Graff