Give Britain Time

COPENHAGEN – “Careful and calm deliberation unties every knot!” a fly-fishing English friend once told me. I was reminded of these words in the aftermath of the United Kingdom’s “Brexit referendum,” when many in the European Union (though not in Britain) called for a swift divorce. I was also reminded of June 1992, when a narrow majority of Danish voters rejected the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum – a close parallel to what happened in Britain last month.

What lessons can we take from that earlier event? For starters, hurrying the process is certain to lead to a result that serves the interests of neither the UK nor the EU. This is not the time for rash decisions or unproductive recrimination. Haste is waste, as the old proverb goes. Decision-makers in the EU and in the UK should let the full consequences of what has happened sink in; only then will it be appropriate to begin work on making the best of a very complicated situation.


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The 1992 Danish ballot shook Europe at the time. Denmark was one of 12 states voting on the Maastricht Treaty, the aim of which was European economic and monetary integration, and the other 11 states were eager to move the process along, in order to prepare the EU for the new post-Cold War era.

The day after Danish voters rejected the treaty, the foreign ministers of all 12 countries met with European Commission President Jacques Delors to discuss how best to respond. All parties agreed that there could be no renegotiation of the treaty, because that would open a Pandora’s box of demands from all sides. Some parties wanted to start a process where the 11 states that voted “in” would create a “new EU.” Under this plan, Denmark would have effectively exited the EU.

I was involved in these talks, and I asked my colleagues to have patience and give Denmark’s leadership time to consider the situation. I admit that I had no idea what to do at the time. But I was convinced that if we had time and space to maneuver, we would come up with an amicable resolution to the standoff.

Eventually, we arrived at an agreement whereby the Danes were allowed to reconsider the treaty under a more limited scope. Denmark would opt out of certain cooperative arrangements envisaged by the treaty in a way that didn’t hinder the rest of the EU from proceeding as it wished.

It was an uphill battle, because many saw our approach as a rupture in the way the EU is supposed to work. What came out of it was nicknamed the Danish “cat-door”: although Denmark had opted out of certain elements of the treaty, Danes would be free to opt back in to the full treaty at a later date if they saw fit.

The deal was finalized at the EU summit in Edinburgh, in December 1992, with help from British Prime Minister John Major and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. In a second referendum, held in May 1993, Danish voters accepted the limited-scope arrangement by a solid majority. Denmark’s attenuated membership has been a ball and chain for Danes ever since.

There are some basic differences between the Danish situation in 1992 and the British state of affairs in 2016. For one thing, the British had already secured for themselves a number of opt-outs from EU rules. (This is actually what the Brexit referendum was about, a fact buried beneath the runaway rhetoric of the campaign leading up to the vote.)

The Danish example underscores the importance of “careful and calm deliberation” when untying political knots, because we cannot foresee today what the situation will be like at the end of the year, or even next month.

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Perhaps renewed pressure on Europe’s borders will finally push all EU member states to come together to resolve the migration issue. And perhaps the Brexit vote will reveal a larger demand for reforming current practices, such as fully free movement of labor and all that it entails. At any rate, EU leaders will soon find out that they cannot just continue as though nothing has happened, unless they are willing to risk more exit referendums within member states.

With time, Brexit’s enormous costs to British society will become apparent and give pause to anyone wishing to follow in the UK’s footsteps. When that day comes, it will be a real tragedy if what was begun by the extremists among us could not then be reversed by more reasonable minds. I’m keeping my fingers crossed in the hope of calm and patient statesmanship by those who have the courage and decency to pick up the mantle of leadership.