By Teis Jensen and Alastair Macdonald
COPENHAGEN/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - For its neighbors and closest friends in Europe, Britain's impending departure from the EU has prompted a flurry of networking in the hope of defending free trade and lean budgets in Brussels.
Britain has been the hub of an informal club known as the Northern Lights, that includes the EU's Nordic members, Irish and Dutch; it offered collective muscle in wrangling against more protectionist and dirigiste traditions in France and Germany or eastern and southern states hungry for EU subsidies.
Now, the constellation of smaller, wealthy states is working to prevent a post-Brexit EU from tilting against their interests. It is looking further afield for allies, such as the free-trading Baltic states and Czechs, or Austria, which is mounting hawkish opposition to paying more to Brussels to make up for the big hole Britain will leave in the EU subsidy budget.
"The British voice in the debate will be missed, especially in areas such as trade," Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen told Reuters. "Therefore, Denmark is looking to tighten our relations with our normal like-minded group of countries but at the same time reach out to other member states that we traditionally haven't coordinated with."
Samuelson has been on what he calls an "alliance" tour that has taken in Austria, the Czech Republic and Portugal, looking to bolster ties on various parts of Denmark's agenda.
His boss, Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, took part in a summit with Irish premier Enda Kenny hosted by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague last week at which all three spoke of common interests. Those are both on Brexit, which will hit trade especially for Britain's near neighbors as well as raise issues like fishing rights, but also on wider EU affairs.
KEEPING IT INFORMAL
Kenny was keen to stress that the idea was not to formalize a union within the Union, in the way that the Benelux trio coordinates EU policy or the Visegrad four of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary: "We are not talking about the birth of a new subsidiary of the European Council," he said.
The core group includes countries both in and outside the euro zone and current governments that are variously somewhat right or left of center, though broadly committed by national tradition to free trade and keeping Brussels on a tight leash.
Free trade, already under pressure since the election of the more protectionist-minded U.S. President Donald Trump and the rise of anti-globalisation forces in Europe, is a cause on which the likes of the Baltics and Czechs are very supportive.
"It's very much based on the old British club, the Northern Lights, but without the UK," a senior Nordic government official told Reuters. "So we need to seek new partners."
"The North and East feel now is not the moment to have protectionist tendencies. It is time to fight for free trade."
Opposition to EU efforts to sign more free trade pacts has stumbled. Nationalist and leftist movements in Germany, France and elsewhere oppose long-running talks with Washington. They nearly derailed a deal with Canada that was finally signed last year after 11th-hour drama in Belgium's French-speaking south.
With 21 percent of the EU population and 26 percent of GDP, a British-led northern six was a major force. The Netherlands, Ireland, Denmark, Finland and Sweden will account for less than 10 percent of people and 15 percent of the shrunken EU economy.
Denmark's Samuelsen, however, has been encouraged by the responses he's had from potential new allies he has visited.
"So far," he said, "I’ve been received very positively."
(Additional reporting by Stephanie van den Berg in The Hague; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Ralph Boulton)