Sovereignty is a myth

Professor Marlene Wind explains that Denmark needs the EU more now than ever before

Since her days at the European University in Florence, Professor Marlene Wind has been obsessed with the EU and the unique international cooperation it represents. Over the years, she has become Denmark’s most cited EU expert and is currently the Director of the Centre for European Politics at the University of Copenhagen. Her views are not always welcome, however, and she often finds herself on the receiving end of harsh criticism for her pro-European position.

How did your interest in the EU begin?

It was a deep fascination of a union or community that in many ways exists against the odds. When states normally work together, they only give up sovereignty when it is in their own interest – suddenly a European phenomenon came about that was so different that no written theory could even attempt to describe it. I found that deeply fascinating and wanted to find out more.

Why is the EU so important?

It really should be quite obvious that Europe as a civilisation will disappear without the EU – it is simply not possible for Europe to solve the challenges of a globalised world if the countries comprising the EU do not stand together in a powerful union. If one looks objectively at the type of global giants that the EU is up against, it is really quite obvious that we need this type of union between European countries.

I often wonder why the popularity of the nion is not much higher, as the only way for the, especially smaller, countries of the EU to match the US, the new BRIC-countries and China internationally is if the European countries stand united. The project should really be self evident.

Why is it necessary for Denmark to be a member of the EU?

If we look at it pragmatically, Denmark is basically just a small, open economy completely dependent on being able to sell its goods on the European market. More than two thirds of all Danish exports go to European countries which means we are fundamentally dependent on European markets in order to preserve our prosperity. Not only that, the trade needs to be free and not hindered by embargos and complicated rules. This is what the EU provides through binding rules sanctioned by a strong court. The benefits this presents for a small country like ours is that in Europe everyone is equal before the law. Whether we are dealing with a small or large country or a company, the rules are the same. This would never have been the case if the EU had been based on ordinary international law.

Denmark therefore benefits enormously from the union not only due to the free trade between its members, but also because of the joint set of rules and its independent court that makes sure everyone plays by the rules at all times. The Danish economy is simply existentially dependent on the binding rules of the European market.

This has never been properly communicated to the Danish people by its lawmakers – it seems as though politicians have never quite grasped how dependent Denmark is on the special character of the EU-market and of being part of that international community. This is, however, dangerous to say out loud in Denmark. If you do,you immediately get accused of being elitist and out of touch with the feelings and sentiments of  ordinary folks.

Why are Danes so sceptical when it comes to the EU?

I really do not understand why Danes are so sceptical. I just don’t get it. If you ask historians they will say that it all goes back to 1864 when we lost a large chunk of Denmark to the Germans. The area had people from another culture, so when we gave it up we stopped being multicultural.

The loss also had an enormous impact on Denmark’s sense of nationalism, which I often think feels very fundamentalistic. It’s as though Danes think they can’t be both European and Danish. The worship of national identity has run amok. It ruins our ability to operate in a globalised world, as it makes people regard international co-operation as running contrary to our country and opposed to what it means to be Danish I was on the receiving end of a ‘shitstorm’ because I made some relatively innocent comments that were critical of Denmark ahead of the December referendum. Danes with what I perceive as a very provincial attitude towards the EU, literally threatened to kill me, though that wasn’t the first time  – You are simply not allowed to criticize these things in our country.

You have called Danes ‘small minded and cheap’ in their attitude towards the EU – what do you mean by that?

This is exactly one of the things people reacted to. I was called a traitor, received death threats and told to leave the country. All I was trying to say was that if you want to take part in international cooperation it is not possible just to receive the benefits and not be a  part of solving the challenges facing the union. It goes both ways and there will always be pros and cons – there will always be advantages and challenges, and it is simply not an option to only get the advantages.

I think Danes have a strange and unrealistic attitude towards the EU – we are constantly thinking about ourselves. And this rhetoric of looking at what we can get out of the EU while escaping any disadvantages runs through the whole system. That was the rhetoric I was attacking. I was trying to add an extra perspective to the EU debate.

Are our politicians to blame for the poor understanding Danes have of the EU?

I am very wary of blaming people. What is obvious, however, is that politicians often deny the reality of Denmark’s European commitments. They talk endlessly about the internal market but hardly anyone seems to talk about the EU as a community in which countries cooperate on many different matters, sometimes even on issues that do not directly benefit them.

This rhetoric has characterised all referendums concerning the EU and has polarised the debate. One side says “don’t worry, there is nothing binding in this referendum!” while the other says “you’re lying! We can never get out if we vote ourselves in!” This has created a defensive pro-EU position rather than a visionary one that says “yes we want to take part in this, even though it’s not perfect, because we believe in the European project and in being a part of something greater. Why? – Because only by working together can we meet the challenges we face in a globalized world”.

That debate is almost non-existent in Denmark whereas its part of the ordinary political debate in Germany and France. Currently, the debate is constantly focused on how ‘safe’ it is to vote for the Union, rather than against it. And I completely understand people who are confused and feel like the politicians are leaving out key information.

What hardly anyone seems to grasp is that the European project is incredibly ambitious and much more binding than normal international trade unions. Within the EU you can’t just pick and choose what laws you want to apply. I am not quite sure whether our politicians really understand this – what I do know, however, is that they have never communicate that to the people.

Why do so many people have an emotional, rather than logical, approach to the EU?

I really do not understand it because the EU in reality is something that we should look at pragmatically, logically. Denmark is a small, vulnerable economy in a globalised world. It is essential that Denmark has a positive attitude towards joint, binding trade laws. To me, that simple argument should be enough, but for so many people it is not, and they get emotionally caught up to a degree that I simply cannot understand.

Maybe the reason is that there really is nothing else to be passionate about in this world that people decide to be overly passionate about national identities, focussing obsessively on their flag and their own little sovereign state which de facto isn’t sovereign at all. Sovereignty is a myth and has been for quite a while. What is important today is not to be theoretically sovereign, but to have influence. And you only get influence through binding cooperation.

How can we make the EU more relevant in the eyes of Danes?

That is very hard. I think we need to make it a bigger part of everyday politics and not just something we talk about once every five years when there is an EU election or a referendum. The problem is that the EU presents a huge obstacle for politicians in terms of getting elected. The way for national politicians to be elected or re-elected is to present this image of being very powerful and having tremendous influence.

But we all know that in a globalised world, politicians only have power if they cooperate with other states. Despite this, politicians keep presenting this false image of power and influence for the simple reason that more people will vote for them. So politicians have no real incentive to talk about the EU up to national elections, as they would indirectly admit that they do not have very much power and that they are dependant on cooperation with other countries. That is an unpopular message that doesn’t get you many votes.

Another possibility is raising awareness through education. Why don’t we teach our children about the EU when we teach them about Danish society? Even when they have reached high school kids hardly realise there is something called the European Union. I find that ridiculous, and what is even more amazing is that I receive around 30 emails a week from students who want answers to the most ridiculous questions about the EU. One student even wanted my expert opinion on why Syria did not just join the EU as that would surely make solving the crisis in the Middle East so much easier.

How do you see the EU evolving over the next 10 years?

I was quoted as saying that the EU would ‘break down’ over the next 10 years. What I meant was that the union as we know it might break down, in a way that we will end up having a small core-group of EU-positive nations deciding everything for countries like Denmark, without even asking us our opinion. That would be a direct consequence of the attitude of countries like ours who only want the advantages that the EU provides, but refuse to take part in solving any of the challenges facing the Union.

If this attitude continues, I believe Denmark will end up in a position of non-influence, forcing us to just copy the inner-market’s laws passed by the core group without us having any say in shaping those laws. We will effectively become like Norway, which just copy and pastes all inner-market rules, but have no influence on the European project at all. M


By Joshua Hollingdale

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