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Denmark’s Zeitenwende


“Historic occasions name for historic selections.” With these phrases, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called on 6 March for a snap referendum on her nation’s opt-out from EU defence. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was the plain backdrop to this determination. Yet the Zeitenwende speech by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz one week earlier additionally spurred Frederiksen – and a majority of Danish MPs – to step up Denmark’s dedication to frequent European defence. They did so by promising to fulfil Denmark’s NATO dedication to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence and by organising the referendum.

On 1 June 2022, a powerful 67 per cent of Danes voted to scrap the opt-out – a legacy of Denmark’s June 1992 referendum, wherein a slim majority of voters rejected the Maastricht Treaty. Upon voting “no”, Denmark negotiated opt-outs on defence, the euro, justice and residential affairs, and union citizenship. Danes then voted in favour of the opt-outs in a referendum on 18 May 1993.

The results of the newest vote is certainly historic. Previous governments held referendums on the euro opt-out in 2000 and the justice and residential affairs opt-out in 2015 – however, each instances, Danes voted to take care of the established order. Moreover, Frederiksen has additionally secured the widest “sure” margin in a referendum since 1972, when then-prime minister Jens Otto Krag carried Denmark into the European Communities.

The turnout within the current referendum was the one cloud within the sky. Sixty-six per cent of the citizens participated within the vote – the second-lowest turnout in Denmark’s 9 referendums on the European Union, and considerably decrease than the 90 per cent who voted 50 years in the past. Nonetheless, this degree of participation is on a par with that within the final European Parliament election.

Sovereignty and a European military

The spectre of a European military has lengthy haunted the Danish debate on EU defence. The ‘no’ camp hailed the opt-out as a authorized bulwark towards the formation of such a military and the everlasting lack of Danish sovereignty. For occasion, it invoked current speeches by French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on the problem – however the strategy didn’t acquire traction this time round.

The undeniable fact that the much-dreaded European military had not materialised since Denmark’s ‘no’ vote in 1992 undermined the scaremongering. In addition, the ‘sure’ camp made positive to enchantment to a typically Atlanticist citizens by emphasising that ending the opt-out would strengthen the European pillar of NATO and accommodate US calls for that Europe step up its defence commitments in its neighbourhood. This tactic prevented the marketing campaign from turning right into a battle between “staff EU” and “staff NATO”.

The undeniable fact that two-thirds of individuals within the referendum voted ‘sure’ appears to replicate a recognition that Denmark wants extra allies and associates in instances of disaster

Opinion polls have consistently shown Danes’ robust reluctance to switch sovereignty to the EU. However, politicians within the ‘sure’ camp seem to have satisfied the general public that, because the EU’s defence initiatives are purely intergovernmental, the elimination of the opt-out wouldn’t undermine Denmark’s sovereignty.

The undeniable fact that two-thirds of individuals within the referendum voted ‘sure’ appears to replicate a recognition that Denmark wants extra allies and associates in instances of disaster. After Putin’s invasion, Denmark’s place as the one European NATO and EU member state exterior the EU’s defence initiatives instantly appeared odd and insecure. Just as Finland and Sweden pledged to affix NATO, Denmark would be part of its EU companions on defence.

Push components

A referendum was not within the playing cards on the flip of the yr. Before turning into prime minister, Frederiksen – a social democrat – characterised Denmark’s opt-outs as the muse of her EU coverage. In reality, just some weeks earlier than Putin’s invasion, each she and Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod argued vehemently that the defence opt-out under no circumstances prevented Denmark from implementing its international and safety coverage. Frederiksen’s place on the problem aligned with public sentiment. Opinion polls had for a few years proven public assist for sustaining all 4 opt-outs. But public opinion shifted between February and March as involved the defence opt-out. Seen from this angle, there isn’t any doubt that the Putin impact led to the referendum consequence on 1 June.

In addition, there was seemingly a level of spillover from Danes’ rising assist for EU membership – a development that has been obvious because the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. For occasion, a ballot carried out by European Council on Foreign Relations in April 2021 confirmed that 28 per cent of Danes thought EU membership was a “excellent factor” – the very best proportion of any of the 12 nationwide groupings in that research – whereas a barely bigger proportion believed it was simply “an excellent factor”. This is in sharp distinction to public sentiment earlier than the referendum in 2015, a yr wherein the refugee disaster created a wave of scepticism of EU membership in Denmark.

Finally, one shouldn’t underestimate the political calculations in play. The liberals in opposition have lengthy argued for the abolition of the Danish opt-out on defence. By calling for a referendum, Frederiksen – who’s prone to face a parliamentary election this autumn – compelled the opposition right into a nationwide alliance and pre-empted its potential accusations that she was failing to assist Ukraine by any means mandatory.

No Danish EU-phoria

The Danish authorities’s subsequent step might be to resolve which EU defence initiatives to affix. Judging by the referendum marketing campaign, it appears seemingly that Denmark will take part within the EU’s mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. More importantly, the referendum consequence contributes to a significant shift in Nordic safety. Once Sweden and Finland be part of NATO, all 4 Nordic nations (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway) and the three Baltics states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) will be capable of collectively take part in each NATO and EU operations, and to interact in army planning and workouts accordingly. As former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt has argued, one wants to return to the Middle Ages and the Kalmar Union to seek out comparable alternatives for a united Scandinavia.

However, one shouldn’t exaggerate the influence of the Danish Zeitenwende past EU defence. While the referendum marks a sea change in Denmark’s EU defence coverage, it doesn’t sign a broader shift in its EU coverage. That a lot grew to become clear on the night time of the vote, when Frederiksen instantly promised the Danish citizens that she would “deal with the ‘sure’ with nice care” and take into accounts the considerations of the 33 per cent who had voted ‘no’. She additionally burdened that she would chorus from placing the opposite opt-outs to a vote.

Frederiksen’s Eurosceptic credentials and powerful assist for a fiscally conservative grouping of member states (which additionally consists of Sweden, the Netherlands, Austria, and – periodically – Finland) in the course of the EU price range negotiations in 2020 may need contributed to the ‘sure’ vote. Danes sceptical of the EU might belief Frederiksen – who has been labelled essentially the most Eurosceptic Danish prime minister in historical past – to not transfer towards the remaining opt-outs. Frederiksen can be selling initiatives which can be at odds with EU priorities, corresponding to by talks with Rwanda a couple of new process for transferring asylum seekers to the east African nation. Such a process would run in opposition to the EU’s asylum coverage.

In this gentle, Frederiksen’s referendum is paying homage to Richard Nixon’s 1972 go to to China. Just as nobody feared that the staunchly anti-communist Nixon would appease China, nobody anticipated Frederiksen to rework right into a European federalist. Throughout the referendum marketing campaign, she was cautious to remind Danish voters (and her European colleagues) that Denmark was towards the concept of a brand new European conference, not to mention a brand new intergovernmental treaty.

Although the Danish Zeitenwende has many nuances, one shouldn’t dismiss its psychological impact. The Danish authorities’s victory has demonstrated that it’s nonetheless potential to win referendums on nearer European integration. Nonetheless, it could be an extended anticipate Denmark’s subsequent referendum on the EU.

The European Council on Foreign Relations doesn’t take collective positions. ECFR publications solely characterize the views of their particular person authors.

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