Nicolai Wammen is Denmark's minister for European affairs. He spoke to EurActiv's Henriette Jacobsen.
Denmark has been a member of the EU for 40 years now. There have been ups and downs and right now, the EU might experience its biggest crisis ever. If you had to sell the EU to the Danes today what would you say?
I would focus on the fact that many Danes have their jobs thanks to the EU’s single market. Our exports to EU countries have contributed to the creation of around 500,000 jobs and one of the most important tasks we have in Europe right now is to strike a balance where the economy is healthy at the same time as we are creating jobs and growth. The easiest way to do this is if we do it together.
I would also highlight that the EU has created peace in a Europe which has been hit by two world wars where millions of people were killed. Even the biggest problems today are being solved at a negotiating table and not via bombs and bayonets.
I wonder how you would characterise the Danish EU debate. For someone who looks at Denmark a bit from the outside, I would characterise it as “non-existing”, but what would you say?
The Danish EU debate is ongoing, but culminates usually around the European Parliament elections and ahead of referendums. But it’s important that we keep the EU discussion alive.
This is also one of the reasons why I decided to tour Denmark as European affairs minister to have the opportunity to meet people at educational institutions, at private companies and associations to discuss the EU with the Danes. I’m witnessing great interest; people are aware that the EU plays a big role for their lives and their future and want to discuss it.
But of course it is important that other politicians besides the European affairs minister discuss the EU with the population.
Looking at the parties elected to the Danish parliament, it seems as if the Danish parliament members are more in favour of the EU than the voters in general. What could be a reason for that?
A broad majority in the Danish parliament, consisting of the government and major opposition parties, supports an approach which says that Denmark should be as close to the core of the EU as possible because we believe this serves Danish interest best.
At the same time there is [scepticism] within the population which we need to take seriously. It’s important that we make a lot of effort to explain why Denmark can make a difference and why it is in Denmark’s interest that we work closely together with the other 26 EU member states.
The government you represent is faring badly in opinion polls. How is this making it difficult for you as European affairs minister to talk about something which is already unpopular among the voters?
My job as European affairs minister is not affected by opinion polls. The government has a clear and ambitious EU policy. The policy is that Denmark should be as close to the core of the EU as possible, that we should be a constructive country which works closely together with the other 26 and this is our opinion no matter if we have good or bad opinion polls.
In your government’s work programme you wrote that in your first term you would want a referendum on two of Denmark’s four opt-outs; the defence and justice opt-outs. Since then Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt has said that now is not the right time because of the euro crisis. But the EU was already experiencing a crisis when your government was formed. So when will there be a referendum on these opt-outs?
It is the government’s view that it is in Denmark’s interests to get rid of the defence opt-out and that we change the justice opt-out to an “opt-in” for Denmark. We have also said that this is what we are working toward, but right now there is a lot of turbulence around the EU and therefore, it is not the right time to have a referendum.
So it won’t be during your government’s first term?
There hasn’t been made any decision on when this referendum will take place.
When talking about the euro opt-out, Danish Centralbank Director Lars Rohde has said that joining the euro would be in Denmark’s interest. Do you agree?
It’s not part of the government’s work programme to have a referendum on Danish euro membership. The Danes have decided to have an opt-out and nothing looks as if the population has changed its mind regarding this question so there isn’t any referendum in our work programme.
But would you as a minister prefer to adopt the euro?
I follow our government programme in my work. When Denmark voted on the euro [in 2000], I voted ‘yes’. My party [the Social Democrats] is positive regarding the euro, but we are part of a government which has agreed not to plan any Danish referendum on the euro. Instead, there will be a referendum on the justice and defence opt-outs when the time is right.
Even though there is a euro crisis, a country like for example Latvia has decided to become a euro member state without having had a referendum first. It is possible to become a euro member without a referendum. Why is it that Denmark needs to hold a referendum?
It’s not possible to join the euro without asking the Danes first because we have had a referendum where the Danes said ‘no’. Therefore, we need a new referendum if that decision is to be changed and the government has no intentions of holding a referendum.
Regarding other EU countries, joining the euro eventually was a condition for their EU membership. These are two different situations which you cannot compare.
The Danish economics and internal affairs minister Margrethe Vestager appears to be positive concerning Denmark becoming part of the banking union and the prime minister has also been sending positive signals. The Swedes on the other hand, who a not euro members either, are saying no because Swedish taxpayers should never end of paying for other countries’ banks’ risky investments. Why does the Danish government believe that a banking union is a good idea?
Denmark has not decided whether to become part of the settlement mechanism. We are working constructively in the EU regarding the settlement mechanism as we did regarding the supervision mechanism of the banking union. Only when we know the result of the negotiations we will decide if we want to become part of it. We haven’t made a decision beforehand, but we work constructively and hope for a good result.
Before your government took over in October 2011, Denmark was very unpopular in the EU because the previous government had set up border controls. Denmark appeared to be closing in on itself. However, there was a new sense of openness toward the EU from your government, mainly because of the prime minister’s past as an MEP and the fact that she made you Denmark’s first European affairs minister. Then you see during the budget summit (in February 2013) that Denmark’s main priority was to get a rebate to itself. How was that not in every way the worst signal to send to the EU?
Denmark and Denmark’s prime minister have a very clear and constructive EU policy which aims at getting Denmark as close to the core of the EU as possible.
Concerning the budget negotiations, we had three main requirements. The first was that we wanted a lower budget than the one the Commission proposed. Secondly, we wanted a modernisation of the EU’s budget with more focus on research, education, innovation and green growth. Thirdly, we wanted a rebate for Denmark of 1 billion Danish crowns [€134 million] per year.
The reason why we wanted this rebate was because we of course pay our fair share of the EU budget and Denmark will also after this rebate be one of the biggest net contributors to the EU. But this would have to be on reasonable conditions.
Before we received this rebate, we paid four Danish crowns whenever other countries, which can be compared to Denmark, paid three. This was not fair. Therefore, we asked for a rebate and all the other 26 countries agreed that Denmark should have the rebate.
So I don’t see this rebate changing our constructive and active EU approach. Other countries have rebates as well.
You keep repeating that Denmark wants to be at the core of the EU. These years, the EU appears to be running in three tracks. Some countries call for more integration. A country like Britain, which joined the EU at the same time as Denmark 40 years ago, wants less EU integration and could be leaving the EU within a few years. Denmark is right now standing between these two tracks. This is unsustainable. Where will Denmark end up if Denmark for example doesn’t have any referendums in the nearest future?
The Danish government has said that we want a closer cooperation in the EU. Therefore, we want referendums on the justice and defence opt-outs. We have also chosen to be part of the Euro Plus Pact though that was not required of us as a non-euro member.
We are also working constructively in the banking union negotiations. So from Denmark’s side we have shown that we are part of the negotiations and that we while respecting our opt-outs work closely with the other countries.
This also means that we are not on the same track as Britain. We have no intentions of going in the direction which the British government has set up for Britain.
If Britain leaves the EU, then Denmark is the EU member which is furthest away from the EU core, due to the opt-outs. What role would that be like?
Denmark is the country, among the 10 countries that don’t have the euro, which has made the closest connections to the euro countries. This means that we are as close to the core as possible. I would also like to mention that the British prime minister David Cameron has said that his aim with the referendum is that Britain should stay as an EU member and not leave the EU.
Britain has for a long time been one of Denmark’s biggest trading partners and a very close ally. How would that change if Britain left the EU, to only be part of the single market?
I don’t expect Britain to leave the EU. And no matter how Britain is linked to the EU after a referendum, Britain will remain an ally, we will remain good friends and we will keep working closely together.
During the next 40 years as an EU member, what would be Denmark’s role?
I hope we will witness a strong Denmark in a strong EU where we play a constructive role and that we are one of the countries which contribute to strengthen the European community so that we will have a strong European economy, create jobs, have a green profile and also be an important player on the international stage.
Which area would you like to be in charge of when you become Denmark’s new EU commissioner next year?
I have my dream job as European affairs minister. It’s not my ambition to become EU commissioner.
Is there a specific area which Denmark would like to be in charge of within the Commission after next year?
Which area that would be is something the prime minister will decide on later on. This has not been decided yet.