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COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Denmark's prime minister called on Tuesday for a referendum on whether to adopt EU justice rules but only after an election next year which the government is likely to lose, potentially transferring the thorny issue to the next government.
Denmark won exemptions from some EU policy areas, including the euro currency and defence policy, in a 1993 referendum on the Maastricht Treaty that laid the groundwork for the modern European Union.
Both Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt's Social Democrats and the largest opposition party, the Liberals, back the referendum, saying they need a 'yes' vote to stay within the European police agency, Europol.
But while Denmark's politicians favour closer integration with the EU, Danes have traditionally been more sceptical. They delivered a resounding 'No' in the 2000 referendum on whether to join the euro currency.
A vote concerning policies on immigration and crime will be difficult for any government to steer through.
A referendum this year on joining an EU Patents Court passed but was used by the populist Danish People's Party as a platform to speak out against the European Union and to seek concessions, such as limits on welfare payments for non-Danes.
Reform of Europol, aimed at the way it collects data, comes under justice and home affairs rules from which Denmark is exempt. If it wants to stay within the agency, under which police forces cooperate across national boundaries, it must "opt-in" to the relevant clauses such as on data protection.
Leaving Europol "would be a serious problem for the Danes' safety and security", Thorning-Schmidt told parliament.
The government had promised a referendum on the issue four years ago, as had a previous government, but no vote has been held -- a sign of how cautious political leaders are about putting EU issues to the vote.
Marlene Wind, professor of European politics at the University of Copenhagen, said Thorning-Schmidt had essentially delayed any referendum.
"It is an old case which only involves Denmark and which is mostly about the fact that Denmark is under pressure and risks being kicked out of Europol," she said.
"Denmark has already been allowed by the EU to pick and choose which rules in this field it will follow but it requires that we have a referendum. So far the government has not dared to call a referendum."
Lars Lokke Rasmussen, a former prime minister and leader of the Liberals, which has a 3 percentage point lead over the Social Democrats in opinion polls, said he backed the referendum but wanted it held before the summer, and therefore likely before the election he could win.
"I told the prime minister already a year ago that we would like to take part in changing the opt-out on justice and home affairs so we could keep the Danish police within Europol," he told TV2 news station.
"We may as well spend the time on something meaningful instead of just sitting and waiting for an election. But it does not seem the prime minister wants that."
The debate comes as Eurosceptic and nationalist parties have grown in influence across the 28-member bloc after elections to the European Parliament earlier this year.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, facing an election challenge from the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), has promised to renegotiate Britain's EU membership if re-elected before offering voters a referendum on whether to stay in the bloc by 2017.
Writing by Sabina Zawadzki; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Janet Lawrence