EU country briefing: Denmark

Denmark [Robert Steenland]

The following article is a part of a series of brief country profiles for the EU-28 ahead of the European elections in May.

Denmark was the first Nordic country to join the EU. It did so in 1973, together with the UK and Ireland, after a referendum in which 63.3% of people voted in favour. Its application to join came mainly out of a practical necessity to maintain close trade relations with the UK.

The country has been part of the Schengen area as well since 2001, but it never joined the eurozone, opting to keep the krone as its currency.

With a population of around 5.7 million, it represents around 1.3% of all EU citizens (without the UK). Fourteen (2%) out of the 705 Members of the European Parliament are elected in Denmark.

At the EU elections in 2014, turnout in Denmark was 56.3%, compared to the EU average of 42.6%.

After the UK, Denmark has the most opt-outs (four) of all EU members – on the Monetary Union (EMU), Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) and EU citizenship – illustrating its more Eurosceptic attitude.

The opt-outs were the result of the 1992 Edinburgh Agreement, reached after the country narrowly rejected the Maastricht treaty in a referendum held earlier that year, in which 50.7% voted against.

Its euro opt-out is confirmed by public attitude, as just 30% of people support the monetary union, making it unlikely Denmark will join anytime soon.

Moreover, an attempt to have a ‘‘flexible’’ opt-in on EU justice legislation (in order to stay in Europol) failed in 2015 after another referendum, in which 53% voted against. However, Denmark kept a ‘‘backdoor’’ access through a separate cooperation agreement.

Despite its Eurosceptic tradition, recent polls show that far more people believe the EU is a good thing (75%) rather than a bad thing (19%), which is above the EU average (62/11). In addition, 78% feel like they are EU citizens.


After having enjoyed several years of economic upturn, Denmark’s growth is stagnating, as confirmed by the European Commission’s (EC) latest autumn and winter forecasts.

Between 2014-2018, Denmark’s economy grew 1.9% on average annually (real GDP), which is slightly below the EU average (2.1%).

Its stagnation is reflected in the fact the economy grew by just 0.8% in 2018. While its economy is expected to expand 1.6% in 2019 (in line with the 1.5% EU average), it’s likely to slow down to under 1.3% by 2020.

Nonetheless, Denmark’s economy has traditionally been strong and its nominal gross national income per capita was the tenth-highest in the world at $55,220 in 2017. The total GDP stood at €292,8 billion in 2017, around 2.2% of total EU27 (without UK) GDP.

In terms of per capita figures, Denmark recorded a real GDP per capita of €47,100 in 2017, the third highest in the EU (after Luxembourg and Ireland) and well above the EU28 average (€27,700).

In purchasing power standards (PPS), Denmark’s per capita GDP corresponds to ‘‘just’’ 128% of the EU28 average.

The unemployment rate was expected to be just 5.2% in 2018 and drop further to 4.7% by 2020, far below the EU28 average of 7% (2018) and 6.3% (2020). Youth unemployment stood at 8.7% in by the end of 2018, well below the EU28 average of 15.6%.

Political context and direction

Denmark’s current political system is based on its 1849 constitution that established a constitutional monarchy with a unicameral parliament. The most important political figure is the prime minister, who leads the government. The head of state is the Monarch (currently Queen Margrethe II), who has a ceremonial and symbolic role.

Denmark is no stranger to populism, as the far-right Danish People’s Party (DPP) provided parliamentary support to three centre-right governments before (2001-2011), and now supports another one, installed in 2015.

Nonetheless, political dynamics have changed from 2014 onwards, as the DPP made its biggest success thus far by becoming the strongest party in the European elections that year, and by ending the second strongest in 2015 national elections.

However, it was the leader of the conservative-liberal Venstre, Lars Rasmussen, prime minister in 2009-2011, who eventually formed a minority government, with support from DPP, the Liberal Alliance and the Conservative People’s Party, despite ending third in the polls.  

As Rasmussen struggled to pass through new policies, he was forced to reshuffle the cabinet in 2016 and take on board the liberal LA and conservative DKF in order to avoid snap elections. The DPP remained kingmakers.

As in many EU countries, the issue of immigration took centre-stage during the migrant crisis, and even prompted most political parties to back a ‘‘Jewellery law’’ which allowed taking away valuable belongings and money from asylum seekers (although it was later watered down by excluding items of sentimental value).

Particularly stunning was the fact Denmark’s strongest political force, the social democrats, also supported the controversial law, confirming their shift to the right on migration that started after Mette Frederiksen took over the party in 2015.

Frederiksen departed from the social democrat agenda laid down under Helle Thorning-Schmidt (2005-2015), who was PM from 2011-2015, by suggesting additional restrictive anti-immigration policies. Moreover, she shifted her party to the left on economic policies.

However, most striking has been the fact she openly flirted with the idea of cooperating with the DPP. In doing so, the party abandoned its 25-year-long cooperation with the social-liberal RV (whose member is the current Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager).

Interestingly, on the issue of the EU, there has been an opposite shift, as the Brexit chaos prompted many Eurosceptic parties, from the DPP to the hard-left socialist Red–Green Alliance, to tone down calls for holding a referendum on EU membership.

Meanwhile, support for the DPP has dwindled, in part due to a scandal over the misuse of EU funds by Morten Messerschmidt (who led the party to victory in 2014’s EP elections). DPP also faces competition from a new far-right party, Nye Borgerlige, formed by ex-DPP members.

This year’s EU elections could also be affected by national elections. While these are planned for 17 June, there are ideas to hold them together with the EU elections, which could drastically increase turnout.

In any case, this year’s elections could lead to a shift in both Denmark’s domestic politics and its relation with the EU.

On the one hand, the social democrats might seek to repeat the strategy Chancellor Sebastian Kurz pursued in Austria, where he shifted his conservative party to the right and cooperated with the far-right. This might lead the social democrats to victory, not just in the EP elections but also in national elections.

On the other hand, as the DPP might lose support and fewer parties back a referendum on EU membership, Denmark’s Eurosceptic attitude could soften.


Based on most recent polling, it is expected that the social democrats will reclaim the pole position they had lost in 2014’s EP elections, with around 27% of the vote. This would bring them five MEP seats (up three) for the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

The DPP is expected to fall short of the shock success (26.6%) they achieved in 2014, with around 14% of the vote and two MEP seats (down 2) for the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE). While the new far-right Nye Borgerlige is not expected to win an MEP seat, its votes could further dent the DPP’s final result.

The Venstre party, part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), will regain the seat it lost in 2014 and win two more, with 19% of the vote. The social liberal RV (ALDE) will probably retain their one seat, while the liberal LA could possibly add ALDE’s total to 5.

Both the socialist SF (Greens/EFA) and the Eurosceptic People’s Movement against the EU, part of the European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), are expected to keep their single seat.

Altogether, the outcome of 2019’s EP elections could be a small counter-revolution for the mainstream political parties, which are set to win 9-10 MEPs out of 14, rebounding from seven seats in 2014.

Nonetheless, in a political arena where social democrats preach similar anti-immigration policies as the DPP, the idea of what mainstream or social democratic means has definitely changed.

Daniel Matthews-Ferrero is a Marie Curie PhD Student in the POLITICO programme at the University of Aberdeen, focusing on contemporary Western European populism. He holds a master’s degree in European Interdisciplinary Studies from the College of Europe.

Robert Steenland works as an evaluation and research consultant in EU policies, as well as an analyst in EU politics.  He holds a double degree master in European Governance.

Trine Enig works as an administrative officer at Aarhus University’s School of Business and Social Sciences. She holds a master degree in political science.

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