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Every week, the Danish People’s party, a rightwing populist movement that last year vaulted to second place in the general election on the strength of its anti-EU policies, holds a meeting in Copenhagen to plot long-term political strategy.

Traditionally a session dedicated to furthering the party’s anti-immigration and law and order platform, in recent months another topic has risen to the top of the agenda: how to exploit Britain’s June 23 referendum on EU membership. “We have been looking very much at what is going on and preparing for this outcome,” says Peter Skaarup, the party’s parliamentary leader.

Those preparations involve more than just weekly meetings. In recent years, the party’s leadership has made annual pilgrimages to Britain to study how Euroscepticism became part of the mainstream dialogue in both of the country’s largest political parties. 

Many of those lessons have now been internalised. Much like David Cameron, the British prime minister who has officially advocated staying in the bloc after renegotiating his country’s relationship with the EU last week, Danish People’s party leaders now talk openly about their own renegotiation with Brussels.

“We are not withdrawalists as a party, but we want to have a new deal with the EU,” says Morten Messerschmidt, who won a seat in the European parliament after the party topped all others in Denmark’s 2014 EU elections, with 26.6 per cent of the vote. “We are happy that a big country such as Britain is talking about taking back sovereignty and is willing to make the final sacrifice.”

Denmark is seen as one of the countries most vulnerable to contagion if Britain were to vote to leave the EU. In many ways, the Danish are the most British of continental Europeans when it comes to Brussels, delaying its EU membership until the UK became a member in 1973 and remaining the only other country with an “opt-out” of the EU requirement to join the euro.

Copycat concerns

Denmark is hardly alone in harbouring political movements that wish to leave the EU. The failure of most of Europe to pull out of its post-eurocrisis economic funk, coupled by the largest influx of refugees in more than a generation, has left mainstream parties across the continent under siege. Some fear a British exit would push many of these countries over the edge, sparking louder calls for copycat referendums that could begin to unravel the great postwar European project.

Although EU leaders believe Scandinavia and the “Visegrad Four” countries in central and eastern Europe — Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — would feel the most immediate pressure from a British exit because of longstanding anti-EU sentiment in those blocs, leading voices from “core Europe” are now lending support for similar ventures.

In the Netherlands, a founding member of both the EU and the euro, Geert Wilders, whose far-right Freedom party has held a commanding lead in national polls for months, recently said a British exit would make it easier for his country to leave the EU — something he promised to deliver should he become prime minister. “The beginning of the end of the EU has already started,” he said last month. “And it can be an enormous incentive for other countries if the UK would leave.”

In France, another member of the EU’s founding six, the far-right National Front, which like the Freedom party is also leading in polls ahead of a presidential election next year, has promised a British-style referendum over EU membership within six months of coming to power.

“Until now, the EU has only enlarged itself. Brexit would prove the EU is not an inevitable plan,” says Florian Philippot, the National Front vice-president. “Soon people would also realise that the UK lives well without being part of the EU. That there would be no economic collapse, no chaos.” 

The noise has begun to reverberate so much that Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, confessed this month that he was “really afraid” Britain’s referendum would prove “a very attractive model for some politicians in Europe to achieve some internal, very egotistical goals”. 

Indeed, José Manuel Barroso, the former European Commission president who oversaw a near doubling of EU membership during his 10-year tenure, warns that Brexit could lead to an EU “détricoté”, or unravelling, like the single thread pulled from a sweater that causes it all to come apart.

Closer integration

Though the recent euro and refugee crises have spurred an anti-EU backlash, they have also produced an EU that is more integrated than ever. Agreements were forged on several common institutions to shore up its single currency and protect its borders. But that integration is no longer just institutional. 

The crises have also created a European electorate far more cognisant of actions taken outside their own country. Finnish voters were acutely aware their tax money was bailing out Portugal in the midst of their 2011 national election, for example, just as Germans are now following refugee flows in Greece on a daily basis. Aided by social media, that newfound connectivity has meant political trends now hop borders at frightening speed. The very idea of national referendums is a case in point. 

In an EU context, plebiscites were once limited to major constitutional issues like treaty changes. Now, they are legion. Denmark voted in December against adopting EU justice and home affairs policies; while Greeks voted down the terms of a third eurozone bailout in July. The Netherlands will decide whether to approve an EU trade deal with Ukraine in April and just this week, Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, said his country would hold a referendum on EU migration policies.

Although Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have recently become troublemakers on certain issues, many EU leaders believe an aping of the British example in the east is unlikely. The countries still receives billions in development funds from Brussels, and being part of the European “club” remains a strong motivating factor for countries recently freed from Soviet imperialism.

“These funds are used locally to stabilise the political power system,” says Gordon Bajnai, Hungary’s former centre-left prime minister. “Losing the EU funds would be a disaster for any regime that is trying to perpetuate itself, as they do in Hungary and some other central and eastern European countries.”

But Scandinavia could be more problematic. Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister, says a protracted divorce negotiation would likely throw out an endless number of British-backed ideas for recreating a separate northern trading bloc akin to the system that existed before the UK or the Nordic countries joined the EU.

“In theory, you could see Europe splitting along the lines of what was there in the late 1950s,” Mr Bildt says. “I don’t think that would happen, but you might have tendencies in that direction.” 

A further unravelling once Britain left is not inevitable. Mr Barroso suggests that a Franco-German led group of “core countries” would announce an immediate initiative for deeper integration as a way to signal to the world — and to wavering EU countries — that Britain was an outlier and those remaining were committed to pulling together at an even faster pace. 

A similar strategy was discussed by senior leaders during last year’s Greek crisis as a way to fend off market vigilantism in the wake of a possible Grexit.

But Mr Bildt notes that rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany, France and the Netherlands means “the core Europe is not as stable as it used to be”, a view shared by some in the core itself.

“I am a firm believer in the EU, but I think that the elites’ traditional sermons no longer work,” says Hubert Vedrine, a former French foreign minister. “They even infuriate people and are counter-productive.” 

Mr Barroso says he does not rule out simultaneous developments: some countries moving towards closer integration while a handful of threads on the periphery get pulled out of the sweater entirely.

“The leaders of the core countries may be willing to show to the world, ‘We are going ahead, indeed we are going to reinforce our steps. [Without Britain], now we can do more, so let’s go for that’,” he says. “At the same time, there will be populist, xenophobic movements that will say: ‘We should have a referendum in our own country’.”

Like many northern EU countries, Denmark’s choice within Europe has long been what Nicolai Wammen, a former defence minister, termed “taking the boat to England or the bridge to Germany”. In the immediate postwar years, picking between the two emerging EU powers seemed no choice at all. Britain was not only a victor of the second world war, but was seen as a counterweight to growing West German economic power.

In 1963, Copenhagen was given the chance to join the EU without the UK but decided to wait for London. But as Britain has gradually disengaged from Europe, and Germany’s economic and foreign policy has come to dominate inside the EU, Copenhagen has chosen to forge closer ties with Berlin. 

Berlin or London’s lead?

Much of Europe has remained uneasy with Germany’s mounting power, however, and that resentment has been evident in Denmark during the refugee crisis, where many blame Chancellor Angela Merkel for exacerbating the influx by “inviting” migrants into Europe. “It’s far more toxic now to say you support Merkel over Cameron,” says Lykke Friis, a former minister. 

Most officials in Copenhagen expect a vote in favour of Britain leaving the bloc would lead the Danish government to commit itself decisively to the EU, particularly if, as Mr Barroso expects, a “core Europe” attempts to redouble integration efforts. 

The bigger question is whether the public would do the same. The Eurosceptics’ victory in the referendum on joining some of the EU’s common legal and policing policies on a case-by-case basis — something the UK already does and which had the backing of the country’s establishment parties — offers a cautionary tale. “The Danish experience is very clear that you can have a referendum where a huge majority in parliament advocate a Yes and the Danes say No,” says Mr Wammen.

Kristian Jensen, the Danish foreign minister, says convincing voters to keep on the pro-EU path would be even harder without Britain inside the club. Many Danes see the UK as a critical ally on free trade and common market issues as well as some of the restrictions on welfare payments to migrant workers Mr Cameron was able to win as part of his renegotiation. 

“It’s important for us to have allies outside the eurozone. It will be more difficult for a country like Denmark if it doesn’t have an ally like Britain,” says Mr Jensen.

For the Danish People’s party, that would present a historic opportunity — but also a significant risk. Mr Skaarup admits that while a new bloc of UK, Norway and Switzerland outside the EU could present an alternative to Danish voters, Brexit would leave Denmark without its natural partner in the EU.

“We would like to take advantage of both positions,” he adds.

Mr Messerschmidt sees a British exit in more apocalyptic terms, saying it follows in the wake of other EU crises that have revealed a weak, splintering European edifice. “The cornerstones of Europe — euro, Schengen, EU institutions — are breaking up, and if the politicians of the EU don’t begin to listen to the population maybe the whole thing will break up.”

That may not have been Mr Cameron’s intention when he first promised Britons a choice on whether to remain in the EU three years ago. But it may turn out to be his legacy.

Additional reporting by Anne-Sylvaine Chassany in Paris and Henry Foy in Warsaw

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.