Denmark votes to scrap EU defense opt-out

COPENHAGEN — Denmark voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to scrap its EU opt-out from security and defense policy in a historic referendum triggered by Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

Almost 67 percent voted in favor while 33 percent were opposed, according to the final results.

“When there is war again on our continent, then you cannot be neutral. Tonight, Denmark has sent a very, very important signal to Putin and to our allies,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said in a speech after the exit polls were released. 

“The text messages are trickling in from colleagues abroad who are happy on behalf of Denmark,” Frederiksen added.

One of those colleagues was European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who said on Twitter that she welcomed the “strong message of commitment to our common security sent by the Danish people today,” adding that both Denmark and the EU will “benefit from this decision.” 

The scrapping of the opt-out was supported by the Social Democratic government and nine other parties. Just three parties were in favor of keeping the opt-out, two on the far right and one on the far left.

The move is a break from longstanding Danish skepticism over further European integration. Although Denmark is a big supporter of the single market and further economic cooperation, the country is highly skeptical when it comes to more EU decision-making, voting in two previous referendums to keep in place opt-outs on the single currency and on justice and home affairs. 

It’s also a major win for Frederiksen as she is the first Danish prime minister to succeed in removing an EU opt-out, and it provides a welcome boost as her popularity dropped amid an ongoing inquiry into her government’s move to illegally cull the nation’s entire mink population in 2020, ahead of national elections that will take place within the next year. 

Opting in

The end of the opt-out, which has been in place for 30 years, means that Denmark will be able to take part in joint EU military operations and cooperate on the development and acquisition of military capabilities within the EU.

It is still unclear in which of the seven ongoing EU military missions Denmark will participate. But several of the Yes-supporting parties pointed during the election campaign to the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia as missions they could see Denmark being a part of.

Separate from 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 NATO’s spending goal.

The referendum comes as other European nations also overturn long-held positions on defense and security after the Russian invasion of Ukraine: Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO while in Germany, the coalition government and the conservative CDU/CSU alliance agreed on a €100 billion boost to the country’s military spending.

It also comes as Russian gas giant Gazprom confirmed Wednesday that it stopped gas supplies to Shell Energy Europe and Denmark’s Ørsted after the two companies refused to pay in rubles.

However, the No-supporting parties have accused the Danish government of misusing the situation in Ukraine for their own benefit. Morten Messerschmidt, the head of the far-right Danish People’s Party, said that the Yes side “has tried to abuse the war in Ukraine to make Danes feel that it is important that we stand together.”  

The parties rallying for a No vote warned during the campaign of the additional costs and loss of sovereignty that could result from overturning the opt-out.

This article has been updated.

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