How the frugal four could grow in number and influence

Brexit has denied Denmark a regular ally in EU negotiations. Copenhagen can find new friends – but it should start the hard yards now. 

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August’s seventh round of Brexit negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom did not lead to a breakthrough – on the contrary, the list of disagreements only grew, leaving a huge divide between the two parties. The unified EU position held, but it is not difficult to imagine that, at some point, hard internal struggles will also surface among the remaining member states over Brexit. This fight is about the EU’s future balance between free trade and protectionism, between the federal and the intergovernmental. As an EU member, the UK was a close ally of Denmark in these questions. The Danish government is thus now actively looking for new friends.

This spring, a relatively new alliance between Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Austria made its voice heard, in the form of the “frugal four”. It now carries some weight within the EU, firstly because during summer’s budget negotiations the grouping stayed united in rejecting a larger EU budget. Secondly, the alliance exerted a major influence on the outcome of the negotiations. In the end, the German-French proposal for a loan-based coronavirus recovery fund, with non-repayable grants, went through. But the “frugal four”, in collaboration with Finland, brokered a lower general EU budget, larger discounts for themselves, and shifted the distribution between loans and grants in the recovery fund.

Post-Brexit life for Denmark could be made easier if this alliance becomes a lasting power within the EU. The alliance may not always have the same level of influence, given that individual countries rarely have the veto right they did during the budget negotiations. Nevertheless, Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen has stated that she would like to see the “frugal four” act together in the future – and there are indications that this is not entirely unrealistic. ECFR’s EU Coalition Explorer research shows that Sweden and the Netherlands, to a greater extent than just two years ago, perceive Denmark as one of the countries they contact most about EU issues.

The EU Coalition Explorer

The Coalition Explorer survey takes place every two years. It canvasses the opinions of over 800 officials and experts working on EU policy in the EU member states, asking questions about their perceptions of each other and about cooperation patterns between countries. This year it took place in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis and in the midst of the EU’s budget talks.

While this growing interest from the Netherlands and Sweden is good news for Denmark, the same cannot be said about the other results of the study. In the EU as a whole, Denmark is far from holding a significant position. In fact, the country just ranks fifteenth as “most contacted”, right after the somewhat smaller state Estonia. It lags its “frugal four” partners by some way: the Netherlands is in third place, Sweden in fifth place, and Austria in seventh place.

Danish respondents regularly point to Austria as a partner country – but no Austrian respondents at all cite Denmark.

This is even true within the group: while Danish respondents regularly point to Austria as a partner country, no Austrian respondents at all cite Denmark in this way. This also applies to specific policy areas such as migration and borders. Finland clearly surpasses Denmark as the country Sweden contacts most often about EU policy matters, suggesting that the Danish-Swedish relationship is not as close as it could be either. On the other hand, the research suggests that Denmark is much more on Ireland’s radar than vice versa.

What 845 officials and experts think about cooperation in the EU is, of course, no exact science. But given that, within the EU, member states opposed to unionwide legislation are obliged to assemble an alliance representing 35 per cent of the EU’s population should they wish to block certain measures, the Danish government ought nevertheless to study these results closely. Even with Finland on board, the “frugals” represent just over 10 per cent of the EU population. Add in the remaining four countries whose survey respondents say Denmark is high on their contacts list – Ireland and the three Baltic countries – and the total rises to 13 per cent. But with Germany and Belgium too, there would be a very powerful alliance in a post-Brexit union. In light of the revived Franco-German alliance, it has become less realistic for Germany to undermine France. So to strengthen the power of alliances still further, the Danish government will need to intensify its hunt for new friends.

This article was first published in Danish in Jyllandsposten.

Catharina Sørensen is Deputy Director at Think Tank EUROPA, a strategic partner of European Council on Foreign Relations.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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