COPENHAGEN — Russia’s war in Ukraine has pushed Finland and Sweden to apply to join NATO, and now Denmark — already a member of the military alliance — is considering scrapping its EU opt-out on security and defense.
On Wednesday, Danes will vote in a referendum on the future of the opt-out, which has been in place for 30 years.
The Danish government is in favor of abolishing the opt-out. “We have a Europe before the 24th of February and after the 24th of February when Russia started the illegal war against Ukraine,” Foreign Affairs Minister Jeppe Kofod told POLITICO, adding that getting rid of the opt-out would be a “strong signal” of a united Europe.
The polls suggest a solid lead for the “Yes” campaign. But experts say it will be a close race, with “No” votes expected to go up in the final days as the 20 to 30 percent of undecided voters make their decision. The deciding factor could be the Euroskeptics.
The Danes will vote on whether the defense opt-out — one of four negotiated after the Maastricht treaty was rejected by the country in a referendum in 1992 — should be converted into an opt-in.
In the event of a “Yes” vote, Denmark will be able to take part in joint EU military operations, such as the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina or the anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia, and to cooperate on the development and acquisition of military capabilities within the EU framework.
Separate to the referendum, the government and main parliamentary parties have also agreed to increase Denmark’s defense budget until it reaches 2 percent of GDP by 2033, in line with the NATO goal.
“As we are going to invest a lot more in our defense, it would be an advantage for Denmark if these investments can be transformed into real capacities and take part in, for example, the European Defence Agency, PESCO [Permanent Structured Cooperation] or cybersecurity projects,” said Kofod.
But, if Denmark votes to keep the opt-out, it would reaffirm the Danes’ particular Euroskepticism — while they support the single market and further economic cooperation, they are among the most skeptical when it comes to further European integration or perceived federalization, voting in two previous referendums to keep their opt-outs.
It would also be a blow to the Social Democratic government and the eight other parties that are rallying for the Yes vote. Just three parties are in favor of keeping it: the far-right Danish People’s Party, the far-right New Right and the far-left Unity List.
The latest poll from public broadcaster DR, published on May 20, showed that 42 percent of voters are expected to vote Yes, while 28 percent are expected to vote No. Around 20 percent of voters are still on the fence.
Derek Beach, who is working on a research project examining public opinion on defense at Aarhus University, said that of the undecided voters, some two-thirds are expected to vote No.
“If the Yes vote is ahead with 14 percent, it would mean the final result is relatively close but still a Yes vote,” Beach said. He added, however, that other polls are projecting a much smaller difference between the two campaigns, meaning the race could be a close one and even tilt in favor of a No.
No to more EU
In a Eurobarmeter survey from 2014, when the question of whether the EU should “develop into a federation of nation states” was last polled, 74 percent in Denmark were against the prospect, compared with a mere 34 percent on average in the EU as a whole.
The EU is “something sensitive to Danes, many have the feeling that … everything we give to the EU, we lose,” Beach said. But, if the Danes vote to overturn the opt-out, it “suggests there might be some movement in the sense of Danes being a little more in solidarity with the rest of the EU and Ukraine.”
The perceived fear of losing sovereignty has also been at the center of the No campaign, with politicians warning that overturning the opt-out could result in more EU, and even an EU army.
“The whole military dimension of the EU is not really finished yet, so we don’t want to recommend a yes to something that is still undefined,” said Peter Kofod, MEP for the Danish People’s Party.
“I am very much afraid that the EU starts building something that is parallel to what is going on in NATO, and I would prefer spending money, time, resources and soldiers in the latter,” he added.
But Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod, backed by experts, has stressed that Denmark will not lose any sovereignty as it will still have the right to not participate in missions it does not want to be a part of, or even veto missions before they are approved.
If there was a transfer of sovereignty, “then we would never have recommended Denmark to take part. It’s not about that, it’s about how Denmark can cooperate with others much better,” Kofod said.
Talks in Brussels on revising the EU’s treaty, which would abolish the rule allowing one country to veto foreign policy, is also meeting a lot of opposition. In Denmark such a step would require a referendum or a five-sixth majority in the parliament, and the Danish government has teamed up with a dozen other countries to object to any changes.