Will the Danish PM jump the sinking ship if opportunity presents itself? Flickr: European parliament
Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt

The coming game of musical chairs at the top of the European system might present a chance for Helle Thorning-Schmidt to leave Danish politics with a shred of dignity.

During a recent lunch portrait in Financial Times, where Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt was mentioned as a good bid for coming president of the European Commission, she, herself, categorically denied such a notion.

But that song sounds all too familiar in the ears of the Danish public, as former prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen chose the same strategy of denial, just before he was appointed NATO secretary general.

Added to this, the current Danish government led by Thorning-Schmidt has been falling to pieces ever since it got elected. Suggesting that the prime minister, who in Denmark is considered more European than Danish, will try to get out before the next general election, where she stands to loose big, and consequently to be knocked off the chair in the social democratic party.

Along with the prime minister, the now outgoing Danish NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been mentioned as candidate for a EU top job as well.

Two Danish candidates for Commission president

Let us start with the NATO secretary general and look at the position as president of the Commission. The liberal ALDE group, who he belongs to, has already selected former Belgian prime minister and ultra federalist Guy Verhofstadt as their candidate. Also in play has been Finnish pragmatist Olli Rehn, who is currently commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro. Verhofstadt would in the end, however, stand best chances of getting final approval from the EP, as he has been a MEP for many years himself. 

It is all relative, however, since it is in the end the heads of state and government, who nominate the Commission president for EP approval. In the council, we know that Angela Merkel already likes Fogh Rasmussen, as she played a big part in convincing Barack Obama to vote for him as NATO head. But we also know, that when current Danish Prime Minister Thorning-Schmidt has to appoint a new commissioner, there is not much chance she will nominate someone who belongs to her biggest opposition party in Danish politics. Plus, Fogh Rasmussen does represent a bit of a political nuisance for her, as she never managed to beat him at a national election.

Taking precedence of this though, could be that that Fogh Rasmussen is in fact Danish. It would be hard for even Thorning-Schmidt to say no, if Denmark was offered such a position, no matter party affiliation.


Should the elections, however, turn out favourably for the European social democrats, Thorning-Schmidt would be in play for the position herself, along with the German current chair of the EP, Martin Schulz. Thorning-Schmidt is leading that race though, since it is very unlikely that the UK or France will agree to put someone from one of the other big member states in such a powerful position. All three countries prefer someone from a small member state. Secondly, on a European level Thorning-Schmidt is considered a pragmatist with the necessary political aura, will and ability to implement necessary reforms, not looking too much to old socialistic methods. She is a bit of an incarnation of the perfect European technocrat.

Every reason to leave Denmark

Even if she does not become Commission president herself, there is still a chance that Thorning-Schmidt will appoint herself as Danish commissioner. Political observers in Denmark are speculating how far she will go to get off the rapidly sinking ship, on which the Danish government is sailing. Unpopular social reforms; mishandling of ministerial duties; and most recently a coalition partner leaving the government; has all added to increasingly bad polls. Straight from the beginning of the term it has only gone down hill for the government, leaving Thorning-Schmidt’s social democrats with historically low support at the moment.

At the next general elections in September 2015 at latest, she will very likely loose big, allowing the liberal Lars Løkke Rasmussen to take back the reign. This outcome will undoubtedly leave the social democrats in chaos, forcing Thorning-Schmidt to leave the chair – politically dead, more or less. So, even though she will probably deny it until the last possible moment, she has good reason to leave Danish politics. And being a European, married to a Kinnock, educated at College of Europe in Bruge and well-liked among the heads of state and government in Brussels, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out where her political passion is.

Other potential commissioners

Should she decide to stay in Denmark, however, former Minister of Justice Morten Bødskov has been mentioned as another candidate to be commissioner. He has been serving as regular MP, since he, literally during Thorning-Schmidt’s famous and infamous selfie affair with Cameron and Obama in South Africa in December, had to step down, as he was caught fabricating a lie to the parliament. He also became the personification of a small crisis between the EP and the Council, when he in 2012 neglected dialogue with the EP about some Schengen amendments. For these reasons it is uphill for Bødskov, as he will have to be approved by the EP, before being able to take office as commissioner. 

Former Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen has also been mentioned. Besides his achievements on national level, he is a former MEP and former head of the pan-European social democrats. He has a good reputation both across the European system and across the political wings in Denmark. And his political habitus would probably earn him a central position in the new commission. Only potential issue is his age. He will turn 71 before potentially taking office, and Thorning-Schmidt generally seems to have a preference for appointing younger politicians.

A Danish Rompuy?

Moving on to who will succeed Belgian Herman van Rompuy as the president of the Coucil of the European Union, both the NATO head Fogh Rasmussen and Thorning-Schmidt are potential candidates, here as well. Van Rompuy was partly selected, because he is from a smaller member state. As mentioned, none of Germany, France and the UK is interested in any of the others having a central and powerful position.

In favour of Thorning-Schmidt speaks the overall smoothly run presidency two years ago and the fact that she managed to come back from the MFF negotiations last year with a reduction of Denmark’s contribution to the budget. In favour of Fogh Rasmussen speaks the fact that he chaired the final negotiations that led to the big enlargement towards east, in 2002. Back then the position as president of the Council of the European Union followed the rotating presidency. In other words, he has done it before and as his term at NATO ends mid-2014, he is available.

It does not work to the favour of any of the two that Denmark is not part of the Euro. This goes for the Commission president as well as the Council president position. A non-Euro president could send an unwanted message to fiscal markets and trade partners that the EU is not taking its own currency seriously.

Right-wing sceptics will conquer even more terrain

Lastly, let us take a look at the EP election in Denmark itself. Denmark has 13 seats in the EP, at the moment five of which are occupied by social democrats (S&D), three by liberals (ALDE), one green (Greens/EFA), one conservative (EPP), one left-wing EU sceptic (GUE) and two right-wing sceptics (one ECR and one EFD). 

As it is the case at many places around Europe, the sceptics seem to be able to gain even further terrain. Member of the Danish Folk Party and EFD Morten Messerschmidt got a very good personal election five years ago, and as the left-wing sceptics are running a relatively unknown candidate, he might be able to reach all EU sceptic voters himself. This could give him an even better election this time around, and as the current Danish ECR member will most likely be completely run over, it could leave the EFD with three Danish seats.

The EPP seems to keep their Danish seat, as well as the Greens (though they are in dire straits nationally), leaving a big battle in the middle between the social democrats and the liberals. Looking at how poorly the social democrats are doing nationally, there is a good chance that the liberals could win that fight and get four seats, which would leave the social democrats with three. Maybe the social liberal centre party can get their normal one seat back, which they lost five years ago.

Edited by: Lisa Enocsson

Photo credits: https://www.flickr.com/photos/european_parliament/with/6721089069/