Denmark has long been a close political and cultural ally of the United Kingdom – but the Nordic state is set to prioritise national interests over friendliness when it comes to negotiating Brexit.
That is according to a number of Danish ministers, former ministers, and business specialists who recently spoke to the Financial Times about Britain’s upcoming exit from the European Union.
“We’ll be rather selfish,” Denmark’s former foreign minister Martin Lidegaard said.
“Brexit has changed it all.Instead of looking at the common benefit and pool our interest, we will get into a game where all of us look more selfish, more narrow-minded,” he said.
The word currently coming from Copenhagen is that Denmark – a country where growing Euroscepticism is now a serious concern for the political establishment – will take a hard line when it comes to Brexit talks with Britain.
Most EU member states have not really made much progress when it comes to preparing for Brexit talks, the FT notes. This is largely down to the mystery surrounding Theresa May’s plans for when negotiations get underway.
But Denmark, a small nation in Northern Europe with more to lose from the downsizing of the EU compared to most other member states, has seemingly reached its position – and it means another headache for May and her cabinet.
“The political environment says that we should be friendly to the UK, that we should not punish it,” an unnamed figure at the heart of preparations explained.
“You need a friendly divorce. Then you look at the issues, and it is clear. It’s not to our advantage to be helpful and friendly.
We would lose out. The more you look at the issues the more it toughens your line.”
Denmark’s foreign minister Kristian Jensen echoed this firm line. He told the FT that the government sat down to discuss the difficult issue of how Denmark should deal with Britain immediately after the shock referendum vote.
However, ministers soon came to a clear agreement on the approach they should take: “… After that we decided what we must go for is not what is good and bad for UK, but what is best for Denmark.”
What the Danish want
For Danish politicians, what is “best” is protecting the long-term health of the country’s biggest source of wealth: the Single Market.
Giving Britain a generous deal – full access to the market with permission to restrict inward EU migration, for example – could encourage other member states to push exits of their own, which in turn would lead to the gradual disintegration of the 28-nation bloc, something Danish industry experts say the country cannot afford.
“Something like 50% of Danish GDP is exports and 70% of that is to Europe,” Bjarke Møller of the Europa think-tank told the FT.
“Mainly to the single market and Germany, not the UK. Isn’t it obvious where our interests lie?”
“You should not underestimate the dynamics. Denmark is a country with open politics, open trade, a country that wants to engage with the world. We need exports and open markets. Losing that or threatening it… could have a huge impact on the economy and our politics.”
Jensen echoed this sentiment.
“If you have five similar tennis courts and on four of them you pay a fee and the fifth is free, who will pay to play?” he said.
“So if you don’t want to pay the fee, you can’t have the same possibilities. It is for the UK to decide.”
These comments from some of Denmark’s most senior figures prove that Brexit is not just an existential matter for Britain – but the entire EU and all of its member states. Last week, European ministers criticised British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson for making “impossible” promises about what Britain can expect to gain in Brexit talks.
Johnson told a Czech newspaper that the EU would be willing to let Britain restrict EU immigration and retain Single Market membership, despite this type of deal being totally ruled out by numerous EU officials, including the EU Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt.