After Brexit, Denmark is keeping the bigger picture in mind
The tripartite relationship between the United Kingdom, Denmark and the European Union is one of the most intricate in modern Europe. In 1961, when the United Kingdom applied to join the ECC, Denmark followed suit a day later and when De Gaulle vetoed the UK’s accession to the community that same year, Denmark promptly cancelled their membership bid. When the UK finally joined in 1973, Denmark simultaneously jumped on as well, maintaining the decade-long policy that they would only join a “greater European market” that would open up access to the domestic agricultural market if their biggest agricultural trade partner was part of said community.
However, after nearly five decades of the bilateral relationship being to a large degree dictated within the frame of EU cooperation, Brexit poses an intriguing and very immediate paradigm for both parties that nobody really knows how to tackle. To best understand what lies next for the relationship between our two historically and geographically close nations, I took to Knightsbridge to speak with Allan Toft - the political counsellor at the Royal Danish Embassy in London.
Quickly I was given the impression that Mr. Toft would stick to the narrative that nearly all other representatives of the EU and EU27 have stuck by religiously: that “the agreement and common ground there has been between the EU27 relating to Brexit and during negotiations” is “remarkable”. He also reiterated that the Commission truly does speak for Denmark and the EU at large in its role as the EU27’s “lawyer” and negotiator. However the impression didn’t last long because (unlike with Mr. Juncker or Verhofstadt) it was quickly acknowledged that the EU has been a tough and fair negotiator and there is much nuance to be considered.
After I suggested that the EU’s imposition of a flat visa fee to visit the EU may be seen as an antagonistic political move, he pointed out that “both parties are in ‘negotiation mode’” and that it was a question of political realism more than anything else - “of course it’s annoying to have to pay for a service that hitherto was free, but the UK did choose to leave the EU [...] This isn’t just a policy grabbed out of thin air”. From a negotiation standpoint, he also pointed out that much of the seeming unwillingness from the EU to discuss a future relationship is grounded in the natural progression that negotiations have to take - “(while) the EU and the UK has agreed on a political statement about the future relation, we just aren’t there yet because the UK simply has to leave first. [...] we have to come to terms with the reality that we have to find a withdrawal agreement first”.
A point that Mr.Toft stressed repeatedly is that negotiations are a process, where “we’re currently negotiating the ‘historical’ relationship and the untangling of the UK from the EU and its institutions and not the future relationship, even though that’s everything anyone wants to talk about. (...) When you build a relationship throughout forty years, it’s simply not realistic to think that it (leaving) can happen overnight”. He spoke of phases, underlining that while this is the first time an EU member state leaves the organisation, a procedure has been established and agreed to by both parties.
So what about the elephant in the room? What if we leave with no deal? The impression from the outside, it seems, is that it is really in nobody’s interest that the UK leave without a deal - “it would hurt businesses and people across the whole of Europe”. The current approach is “to see where to and how long the negotiations will bring us, because an extension of article 50 can come into question before March 29th”. All that being said, it doesn’t mean that a no-deal eventuality hasn’t been addressed. Mr.Toft explained that in the event of no deal there might be a willing and readyness to engage in many temporary and ad-hoc solutions for multiple issues (such as the extension of the open skies agreement for 2019) to keep everything moving after Brexit and gave me countless examples of how the Danish government has itself prepared for such an eventuality.Just as the UK the EU would have to prepare for a no deal.
He recognised that such solutions weren’t exactly being talked about “(because) we have to see it from the perspective that we don’t want to talk about it yet because it simply isn’t a solution nor an actual withdrawal agreement, it would be pre-emptive”. All this being said, Mr.Toft strongly renewed the assertion that no matter what comes, “we respect the result of a referendum” and that while Denmark and the EU at large want the UK to “remain as close as possible”, it is for the UK to say exactly where they want that to be.
Enough EU talk then, what about the future relationship between these two great kingdoms? Again, the logical assumption (that Mr.Toft rightly repeated) is that the UK-EU negotiations will have to take precedence. He stated that “there are indeed areas where the future relationship is a matter of sovereign jurisdiction and in those areas it is natural that we will seek a dialogue about a more specific future bilateral relationship. However, I must note that it is currently not the time for such talk, it would be out of place and simply wrong timing-wise [...] we would be dealing in hypotheticals”.
However Denmark does remain optimistic. “There are clearly certain things we find key, you just have to look at Danish exports to the UK- Fishing and cattle are rather important, just like the environment and energy etc. Our historical relationship and geographic placement as neighbours logically means that Denmark has specific interests”. When we discussed the EU settlement scheme, he lauded the British government for approaching the problem extremely constructively and “showing goodwill”- especially when tackling a bureaucratic issue that needs to “hit the nail on the head at the first attempt”. Furthermore, when discussing the doom and gloom that surrounds the discourse around a no-deal or hard brexit, he rightly pointed out that “most major companies trade outside the EU, so while an EU member state leaving may be hitherto unknown, trading with one certainly wouldn’t be unchartered territory for businesses”.
When push comes to shove, Denmark may be sticking behind the EU narrative that the process has to be taken step by step and that the UK has to lead the way, but Mr. Toft also spoke with optimism regarding the political reality of what is to follow. He agreed that while the political atmosphere here was not necessarily constructive, it also reflects that “There is certainly no shortage of ideas and potential models for the future relationship”. He pointed out that it is in the EU27 and certainly Denmark’s best interests to remain close with the UK after Brexit and vice versa and that while the UK has to “take the first step”, he assured me that there will be hands reaching out to take the next step with the UK after we’ve left.