The pursuit of a more popular EU may be a risky and hazardous business

Otto Brøns-Petersen // 11 March 2020

Britain has left the EU. Politicians in Brussels and Member States are seeking a mission for The Union that has broad public appeal in order to gain support from populist tendencies instead of becoming the victim of them. However, this risks the EU jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. Instead, they should consider strengthening their efforts when it comes to the core areas of the EU – above all, The Single Market. In the long term, a boring, properly functioning EU is much more viable than a hazardous political project.

The EU’s natural tasks are those that fit the size of its jurisdiction. Just as tasks such as street lighting are better handled by local authorities, matters such as trade policy and cross-border environmental problems are better handled at a European level. Interestingly, the Comission’s public opinion poll shows that Danish voters highly prioritize such matters. Climate policy is at the top. Despite this, most Danish parties pursue environmental policies almost exclusively focusing on domestic instruments.

On the other hand, there is little justification for letting the EU play a role in areas such as taxation, social policy, or the labour market, where certain politicians seek to grant it one. The Danes have traditionally voted for enhanced EU cooperation at times when that would promote economic growth but voted against politically motivated integration. Voters backed The Single Market in 1986 after a majority in the Danish Parliament had turned it down.

If anything has changed since then, it is the attitude towards the EU at both ends of the political spectrum. At the beginning of Danish membership, EU resistance was most significant on the far left. Today, it is almost the opposite. Nye Borgerlige (The New Right) is the only party which advocates secession. This shows  that it is a severe misconception to suggest that, by focusing more on left-wing politics in areas such as taxation and labour market policy, support for EU membership will increase.

It is also a common misconception that populist tendencies in Europe call for more redistribution and protectionism. A study by Associate Professor Andreas Bergh and Anders Gustafsson shows that support for populist parties cannot be explained by increasing globalisation widening income inequality, or low economic growth. However, EU membership itself is the most important explanatory factor behind populism in the analysis. That indicates that political centralisation in the EU is a driving force worth noticing.

The departure of Britain may turn out to be a hazardous decision. However, the same goes for the attempts to find a new “popular” EU agenda – particularly if it undermines the true advantages of the EU.


EPICENTER publications and contributions from our member think tanks are designed to promote the discussion of economic issues and the role of markets in solving economic and social problems. As with all EPICENTER publications, the views expressed here are those of the author and not EPICENTER or its member think tanks (which have no corporate view).


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