Why Denmark votes on its defense relationship with the EU – and what it says about democracy in Europe

On June 1, Danish voters will take part in a referendum on whether to end the country’s EU defense policy opt-out, which prohibits Denmark from participating in EU defense matters. . This means that when the EU deploys personnel under its Common Security and Defense Policy, Denmark participates in civilian but not military operations.

It was one of four agreements reached when Danes voted ‘no’ to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty to establish the EU. Along with defense policy, Denmark has withdrawn from the euro, justice and home affairs. The European Council also endorsed a Danish statement that EU citizenship can only complement national citizenship, not replace it. These four arrangements for Denmark persuaded voters to support the Maastricht Treaty in a second referendum in 1993.

The citizenship regime then became the norm for all Member States through the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997, which ratified that EU citizenship is complementary to citizenship of a Member State and cannot replace it. .

The decision to hold a vote on the defense opt-out reveals a deeper shift in EU constitutional politics. Faced with contentious issues, governments are increasingly turning to single-issue referenda.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 changed the security situation in Europe in the blink of an eye. Finland and Sweden previously opted to stay out of NATO, but have now submitted requests. Denmark, a founding member of NATO, is now forced to rethink its foreign policy, including its independent relationship with the EU.

Faced with a war on its eastern border and the arrival of more than four million Ukrainian refugees, the EU has agreed to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine – the first time it has done so for a country . EU member states have also agreed to commit up to 5,000 troops to a new rapid reaction force and take part in live exercises on land and at sea. This is part of a new strategy to of the EU a stronger military player.

Denmark cannot participate in such efforts, potentially making it more vulnerable to external threats than most EU member states. The EU’s mutual defense clause guarantees aid and assistance from other member states in the event of aggression. It remains unclear to what extent Denmark can invoke or benefit from this provision, given its special status.

A coalition of four Danish political parties proposed the referendum in March, calling on Danes to overturn the opt-out. If the Danish people vote to remove the opt-out, Denmark will be able to participate fully in EU military operations and cooperate in the growth of EU military capabilities, while increasing its own military budget. If the people vote no, Denmark will remain outside EU defense policy, which will continue to develop without it.

Single-theme referendums

In the past, national governments mainly looked to national parliaments to approve changes in their country’s relationship with the EU. But persistent problems of public trust in governments and parliaments make it difficult for these institutions alone to give consent to EU policies and European integration issues.

Since 1972, nearly 50 referendums have been held on EU issues, the most common being a treaty review or a decision to join the EU. Our research shows the growing importance of single-issue referenda focusing on specific policies or issues concerning European integration. Member States are rarely obliged to hold referenda on a single issue. They choose to do so when the way they usually engage with the EU is under strain. Examples include the 2015 Greek referendum on negotiations with the EU and the International Monetary Fund, the 2016 Hungarian referendum on refugee relocation and the 2016 UK vote to leave the EU.

After Denmark secured its four waivers to elements of the Maastricht Treaty, the political consensus was that a referendum would be needed to commit to any of these areas. This was not a legal requirement but a political requirement – ​​and it established single-issue referendums as an integral part of how Denmark participates in the EU.

An EU flag and the flag of Denmark flying side by side against a blue sky
In the June 1 referendum, Danish voters will decide whether or not to change the country’s defense relationship with the EU.
oleschwander / Shutterstock

So far, two opt-in referendums have taken place in Denmark, but have not resulted in any changes. In 2000, voters rejected joining the euro despite broad support from political parties and trade union leaders.

In 2015, a referendum on ending the country’s Justice and Home Affairs opt-out from the EU also ended in defeat.

Vote against the government

Denmark is not an isolated case. Of the six single-issue European referendums called by governments since 2000, four have gone against government preferences. And the controversial referendum on relocating refugees to Hungary resulted in the ‘no’ vote the government wanted, but failed to secure the required turnout. The Greek government won a ‘no’ vote against the terms of financial assistance from its international creditors, but that made little practical difference in the negotiations.

This makes Denmark’s upcoming referendum politically charged, with polls giving the ‘yes’ an unconvincing lead, given the large proportion of undecided voters. The fact that four political parties have proposed the referendum means that it will not simply be a vote on the popularity of the government. It will also be on the sole question of whether voters think the security situation has changed enough to allow “more EU” in Denmark.

The Danish government has already promised that if the EU seeks to establish a supranational army, there will be yet another referendum to decide whether Denmark will participate. Whatever the outcome, single-issue referendums will remain a feature of EU constitutional politics.

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