COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - A wave of euroskepticism spreading across Europe reached Denmark on Friday, with the party cast as kingmaker after elections standing by demands for a referendum on EU membership as its price for joining a coalition government.
The Danish People’s Party (DF) surged to become the largest party in a center-right bloc in Thursday’s parliamentary ballot, when voters dumped a center-left coalition.
DF’s calls for fewer migrants, more spending and EU reform resonated with more than a fifth of voters, and one of the party’s vice chairmen, Soren Espersen, told Reuters on Friday those demands marked a “red line” it was not prepared to cross.
DF, which has never held cabinet posts in its 20-year history, now has to decide whether to team up in government with the Liberals of former premier Lars Lokke Rasmussen, likely for now to regain the top job.
“We have to consider how we will get the most influence,” party leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl said, saying he was happy for Rasmussen to lead talks on forming a government to succeed defeated center-left Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
With all votes counted on the Danish mainland, the center-right won 90 seats to 85 for Thorning-Schmidt’s bloc.
“We’re quite happy to be outside of the government. It’s up to Rasmussen whether he wants an easy ride or not,” Espersen added.
Copenhagen University professor Malene Wind said most parties in the election has been euroskeptic, with even the Liberals showing such tendencies. “There is no question that Denmark in general is moving in a more EU-skeptic direction,” she said.
That mirrors developments elsewhere in western Europe, notably France and Britain, where two nationalist parties - respectively Marine Le Pen’s National Front and the UK Independence Party - scored heavily last year in European Parliament elections.
Still, DF is less extreme. Its members sit with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives in the European Parliament and its policies include higher welfare spending for the elderly and unemployed.
DF’s election showing looks likely to strengthen Cameron’s
hand as he attempts to renegotiate London’s ties to Brussels and hold a referendum on the result by the end of 2017.
If that goes ahead, DF says, Denmark should hold a similar referendum.
DF’s rhetoric “is anti-immigrant and sometimes stridently so. But it doesn’t go into racism like the National Front in France and is not hardcore anti-EU like UKIP,” said Derek Beach, a political scientist at Aarhus University.
Espersen said also DF wants to re-impose physical border controls, swept away after Denmark joined the passport-free Schengen zone, to stem a flow of immigrants and smuggling.
But analysts doubted DF could win more than symbolic concessions on that score, and the Liberals, traditionally staunchly pro-EU, oppose any Yes-No referendum on membership.
Nevertheless DF has already succeeded in slanting the center-right bloc its way: during the campaign the Liberals agreed to back Cameron’s bid to reform the EU as government policy.
And the DF will campaign against extensions of EU power in a planned referendum to opt in to EU justice rules, and push for a further plebiscite on whether Denmark should join the ECB-led banking union.
It could be some weeks before it becomes clear whether DF will be part of the new government. Until then Thorning-Schmidt, who handed her government’s resignation to Queen Margrethe on Friday, will stay as caretaker.
DF is aware of the experience of other small parties in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe who, once in government, have bled support due to compromises with mainstream parties - and staying on the sidelines may might ultimately secure it more influence.
Frank Aarebrot, a professor of political science at the University of Bergen in Norway, likened radical parties in Europe to trolls in Scandinavian folklore that turn to stone if exposed to sunlight.
“If you want to get rid of a right-wing populist party in Europe you put them into government,” he said of the spotlight of publicity. “There is a process of petrification.”
Additional reporting by Annabella Pult Nielsen and Teis Jensen; editing by Ralph Boulton and John Stonestreet