Friday, December 2, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Danes overwhelmingly back EU defense cooperation

Two out of three Denmark voters said yes to collaborating with EU member states on military operations in the future, abandoning 30 years of self-determination on national defense.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (CN) — Not since Denmark chose its membership of the European Union in 1972 has such a clear majority opted for EU collaboration.

On Wednesday, 66.9% of the Danish voters marked “yes” to whether Denmark should lift its defense reservation and be able to join European-led missions and arms cooperation.

Until now, Denmark has stood outside 14 EU interventions aiming to counter terror, stop piracy, and secure better control of refugees and migrants. The national opt-out meant that the Danish minister of defense had no say in military negotiations in the EU.

But from July 1, Denmark can participate in joint missions, while politicians can influence strategic decisions in the EU regarding specific operations or veto any Danish participation if the national Parliament back home does not support it.

One of the many supporters of a closer Danish collaboration with the union is Morten Helveg Petersen, a Danish member of the European Parliament for the Renew Europe group. He is thrilled about the referendum result.

“I can't get my arms down over the Danish vote to drop the defense opt-out,” he said in an email.

“It belongs to another time," Petersen continued. "With the vote — the landslide vote, I should say — we can now say to the rest of Europe, 'yes, we want to contribute, we want to enter the European defense cooperation 100% and take responsibility for Europe's security together."

The EU has seven ongoing missions, with European soldiers particularly active in African countries such as Somalia, where they patrol the coast to prevent piracy, and Libya, where they inspect arriving vessels to help upkeep its national embargo on weapons.

Closer to home, the EU runs Operation Althea in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The mission aims to secure peace and security by supporting local forces, EU troops and training.

The months leading up to the final vote have been packed with considerable debate in Denmark on respectively pros and cons of lifting the reservation. All in all, the Parliament parties spent 2.4 million DKK (approximately $345,000) on campaigning online and on social media platforms.

Among those unsupportive of changing the status quo on defense, the left-wing party Enhedslisten and the right-wing party Dansk Folkeparti positioned themselves in the “no” camp.

Peter Kofod, a member of Dansk Folkeparti and the Identity and Democracy Group in the European Parliament, has always been skeptical. Yet, he acknowledged that the Danish voters spoke with a clear voice Wednesday.

“There was no doubt about the result. The Danes have spoken, and I respect that 100%," he said in a phone interview. "Now, Denmark is moving into the military section of the EU, and I will keep a very close eye on whether the promised conditions will be delivered. More specifically, that we do not give up our decision-making power."

One of Kofod's main concerns is a potential internal rivalry in NATO, which could escalate if the two big weapon industries — France and the U.S. — start to compete more.

Kofod pointed to a case last fall where the French government responded strongly to a decision made by Australia to abandon a submarine deal and instead buy American nuclear-powered submarines.

If Denmark joins close military ties with the EU, Kofod contends, the small country can quickly find itself cornered to pick a European side in similar conflicts. He considers the U.S. a primary ally in intergovernmental questions of security.

Kofod was not surprised about the timing of the referendum.

“The whole discussion on our reservation has nothing to do with Ukraine, but it is a practical time to have a public vote. It has been a contributing factor to get the Danes to vote in favor of a lifting,” he said.

Speaking to Courthouse News Service ahead of the vote last week, expert Henrik Larsen said that the EU does not have much impact on the war in Ukraine, as NATO coordinates the military responses.

Many see a link, however, between the Danish referendum and Russia's current aggression.

“Putin's mad war has turned the European worldview upside down," MEP Petersen said. "The other day, Russia turned off gas supplies to Denmark because we refused to be blackmailed into paying in rubles. He orchestrated hybrid attacks with migrants on European borders through Belarus last winter, and in USA Russia excels in attacking democracy through digital means.”

Petersen underlined that stronger defense cooperation in the EU is long overdue.

As Denmark lifts its reservation, Malta is now the only European member state that does not participate in the union's joint defensive forces.

It is tricky to calculate just how much more the government needs to spend per year on the defense budget to participate in EU interventions. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates at least 26.6 million DKK (approx. $3.8 million), yet that is only for fixed costs.

In addition are mission costs, emergency forces and battle groups, and the technological corporation on systems and cybersecurity under PESCO, short for the EU defense policy Permanent Structured Cooperation.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.