Photographer: Freya Ingrid Morales/Bloomberg

Cameron Heads North and Looks to Denmark in EU Reform Drive

  • Prime minister goes to Iceland for talks with Nordic leaders
  • Norway's relationship with bloc not seen as model for U.K.

Prosperous, stable and outside the European Union: Norway is a British euro-skeptic’s dream. Not for David Cameron.

The U.K. prime minister has ruled out following the Norwegian model when it comes to relations with the EU. As he traveled to Reykjavik on Wednesday for talks with fellow prime ministers from northern Europe, Cameron was expected to pay more attention to member state Denmark.

"Denmark and the U.K. very often share the same view on many issues," particularly on free trade and on "striking a more fair balance between freedom of movement and access to welfare payouts," Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen said in an interview.

The trip to Iceland is taking place just weeks before the EU’s 27 other national leaders are due to scrutinize his demands for changes to the U.K.’s relationship with the EU at a summit in Brussels. As such, it offers the British prime minister an opportunity to build alliances and shore up support before a referendum on Britain’s EU membership due to be held by the end of 2017.

Full Spectrum

At the Northern Future Forum in Iceland, he has the chance to lobby leaders from countries that are running the full spectrum of EU relations: from the fully integrated Baltic nations and Finland, which share the euro and side with Germany in pushing southern countries to reduce their spending, to Norway and Iceland, which aren’t members and won’t be any time soon. Denmark and Sweden, which are in the EU but have not adopted its common currency, stand in the middle.

British anti-EU forces, including groups campaigning for a U.K. exit at the referendum, have long suggested Norway could be a model for Britain. While it’s outside the 28-nation bloc, it does benefit from the region’s single market -- though it has no say in how it’s run.

Cameron rebuffed the Norway model when he spoke in Parliament during his weekly questions session earlier on Wednesday.

“Some people arguing for Britain to leave the EU have particularly pointed to the position of Norway, saying that it’s a good outcome,” he said. “I would guide very strongly against that. They pay as much per head as we do. They take more refugees than we do. But of course they have no seat at the table, no ability to negotiate.”

Danish Influence

Denmark is different. Since the Danes and the British joined the EU together in 1973 they have shared similar misgivings about how it is run. Both have decided against joining the euro and both are in the unusual position of having negotiated opt-outs from certain areas of EU law.

Denmark’s population of around 5.7 million people may be less than a 10th of that of Britain’s, but its influence should not be underestimated.

Denmark is "symbolically important” in its ability to bridge British and German interests, said Pieter Cleppe, the head of the Brussels office of the Open Europe group. “Denmark is seen as one of the close allies of Germany, and if the Danish prime minister tells Cameron he can agree with what he wants, it would boost Cameron’s attempts to win over the others.”

For Cameron, getting Germany’s Angela Merkel onside in his EU renegotiation attempts is crucial because of the clout that Europe’s largest economy has within the bloc.

Little Helper

Relations between Cameron and Rasmussen, whose Liberal Party took office in June, are also warm.

While the Danish premier is pro-EU, he shares British Conservative views on capping welfare payouts for EU migrant workers and reversing the grip of the EU bureaucracy on national legislation. When the pair met in London last month they agreed to work together “to exchange further ideas” on EU policy, according to a statement from Cameron’s office.

Denmark has a history of dealing with disagreements with the Brussels machinery in a constructive way. It’s experience could prove useful to Cameron’s change-it-or-leave-it dilemma.

What’s more, a British exit would be "particularly troublesome" for Denmark given the countries’ shared "values and how we want the EU to develop," Rasmussen said.

That’s why it makes sense to cooperate.

"Denmark has experience on how to resolve issues in the EU," Rasmussen said, "and I’m sensing that there’s some interest from the British in that.”

"We’d like to be the little helper to get these things resolved."

While it’s not of the scale of the U.K.’s referendum on whether to leave the EU or stay, Denmark is holding a vote too. On Dec. 3, Danes will go to the polls to decide whether the country should give up some of its opt-outs from EU security and justice rules. Coming so soon before the U.K.’s plebiscite, the results will be watched closely in Brussels and London.

“A ‘no’ vote will cause Brussels more concern as Denmark is once again voting against Europe” said Wind. “The interpretation will be that the Danes have teamed up with the Brits.”

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