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On the EU, Britain Should Take Some Danish Lessons

25/04/2014 11:05 BST | Updated 24/06/2014 10:59 BST

From Danish TV to Swedish pop, I'm an incorrigible Scandophile. My love of the Nordic even goes as far as taking summer holidays there and enjoying the cuisine - contradictions in terms for many Europeans.

Our Viking cousins also have a thing or two to teach us about stable and successful government, so when the chance came to play Borgen in a recent joint debate with Danish and British candidates for the European elections, I jumped at it.

The British and Danish debates about Europe have much in common - concerns about migration (read 'benefit tourism'), a sense of threatened national identity, and the division of national and EU powers (to opt in or to opt out, that is the question) - but the tone and direction differ enormously.

Whilst Danes arguably have more reason than Brits to be concerned about potential pressures on their welfare system - which is frankly rather more attractive than Britain's - the shrill, hostile tone of Britain's migration debate (see Ukip for details) would shock even the most Eurosceptic of Danes.

Likewise, while David Cameron talks of 'repatriating powers' from the EU and British ministers openly talk of quitting, Danes discuss how to maintain influence and instead flirt with opting in to more EU decision-making - including crime-fighting measures which British anti-Europeans seek to jettison.

Much of this difference in tone has to do with political culture. Danes are probably at least as proud of their history and traditions as Brits - they certainly fly a lot more flags - but have a far more consensual way of doing things. That means they're better both at coalition-building in Copenhagen and consensus-building in Brussels.

The Brits in contrast remain positively naïve when it comes to coalition, even after four years of it. Politicians, voters and media still approach the subject with a mix haughtiness and bemusement - though hit Danish drama Borgen helped remind us that it's actually the normal way of doing politics in most of the democratic world.

Likewise our trepidation towards Europe. While half of Brits told a recent Europe-wide poll that the UK might better face the future outside the EU, only 1 in 5 Danes echoed this sentiment, 41 years after we both joined the club together.

Danes may not be Europhiles, but they take their seat at the table, get stuck in, and build coalitions to get things done. Look at Connie Hedegaard, the doughty Danish EU commissioner for climate. She hails from a small party in a small country (the Danish conservatives, who incidentally share little in common with their British namesakes), but has been a driving force for Europe's green agenda, successfully allying with Lib Dem ministers Chris Huhne and Ed Davey in the UK, among others.

Danes also have a proper system for holding their ministers to account before and after they pass EU laws on behalf of the country in the EU Council of ministers. Here again, Britain has much to learn. This might be why 87% of Danes have faith in their own democracy, compared to 56% of Brits.

So as the Tories play catch-up with Ukip, Labour put their heads in the sand, and Lib Dems stand alone in putting a positive case, Britain still remains stuck in its existential crisis of 'in' or 'out'. How I envy our cousins across the North Sea. As the Guardian asked this week, is it too much to hope for a more grown-up debate on Europe?