Textbook example of how to lose the argument

Lessons For Britain
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30 September 2000

30 September 2000

Asked what message he would send Tony Blair after Denmark's rejection of the euro, the Foreign Minister, Niels Helveg Petersen, was modest. "I don't think I should give advice, I just lost a referendum."

Anyway, he said, the British Government "read newspapers and will know how to draw conclusions".

By yesterday morning many commentators were criticising Danish euro supporters for failing to mount a political case for joining, hoping the economic arguments would win through.

But Mr Blair would do well to examine the lessons of a Danish "yes" campaign that seemed at times to be almost a textbook example of how to lose a referendum.

Lesson 1: Beware poor timing. The Danish "yes" camp found itself fighting a contest against the backdrop of a euro spiralling downwards on the international exchange markets.

Lesson 2: Avoid wise men. The Prime Minister, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, commissioned a report from "independent experts" on the economic benefits of the new currency. This backfired spectacularly when the "wise men" concluded that the benefits of membership were "minimal and uncertain".

Lesson 3: Don't let your opponents set the agenda. Lacking a clear slogan, devoid of a convincing reason why voters should vote "yes", the pro-euro group allowed the "no" campaigners to conjure up all manner of threats to everything from the monarchy to the welfare state.

Lesson 4: Don't panic. The "no" camp scored a big hit by presenting the euro as a threat to the state pensions system. Instead of dismissing this as a scare, Mr Rasmussen hurried out a "pensions guarantee" that left many experts unconvinced. He then promised assurances from the other 14 EU leaders that the Danish pension would not be touched, but that had to be withdrawn.

Lesson 5: Stick together. There were rows in the coalition of parties backing the euro.

Mr Blair should not conclude that all is lost. Several factors may have made a referendum harder to win in Denmark than in Britain. Danes saythey are more attached to Europe than Britons do, but they are also strongly committed to their own country. Also, unconvinced Danes were more likely to turn out and vote "no" than stay at home.