Christine Nissen: Danish Euroscepticism has been in decline since Brexit

On the 1st of June Denmark voted to remove its opt-out on EU’s common security and defense cooperation by an unprecedented large margin – 66,9 % yes against 33,1 % no. Kasper Ly Netterstrøm sat down with Christine Nissen researcher at Danish Institute for International Studies to understand the result and its importance. 

Kasper Ly Netterstrøm: The Danish population has previously voted against removing its opt-outs. In 2000 they rejected joining the Euro, and in 2015  they rejected the EU’s Home and Justice Affairs cooperation. What was different this time?

Christine Nissen: There are two main reasons for this. The first is the context. Without the war in Ukraine there would not have been a referendum and the “yes” would not have been so big. The second reason is that 

Danish Euroscepticism has been in decline for some time. Since Brexit we have seen Danes becoming more supportive of the EU.

The pandemic and climate change also helped. These transnational issues have made the Danes more EU-positive. There seems to be an understanding in the Danish population that these problems are best solved through European cooperation. There were some polls during the pandemic that showed that even though Denmark acted unilaterally in some cases (for example in relation to the purchase of vaccines), there was still a willingness to be part of European solutions. So, we have a population that is becoming more EU-positive overall combined with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has meant that many Danes feel that the world has become a more dangerous place and that we cannot be alone anymore. And then there’s the symbolism, which was also our prime minister’s talking point, that we had to be on the right side of history. The war in Ukraine has brought European countries closer together, and we in Denmark had to be part of that. 

What role did the different campaigns play?

Some of the parties that traditionally represented the “no” camp were weakened this time. The Danish People’s Party led the voice of the “no” campaign in the 2015 referendum (the referendum was on whether to convert Denmark’s full opt-out on home and justice matters into an opt-out with case-by-case opt-in). At the time they dominated Danish politics, but now they are in a process of total collapse. Their campaign this time was also not so clear. They mixed very technical arguments that people did not understand with a scare campaign people did not believe. Whereas the “yes” camp was more toned-down, not so aggressive, and played more on emotions, the symbolism of being united against Putin. Another factor was the fact that Danish voters have always been skeptical of giving up sovereignty, which perhaps is a bit weird for such a small country to be so afraid of that, but nevertheless that has been the case. Ever since we joined in 1972 in all the subsequent referenda – and we have had a lot of them – this has been the key issue. 

The EU’s common defense and security policy is intergovernmental, not supranational and no sovereignty had to be given up. The traditional argument of the “no” camp was also absent then.

What does this result mean for EU? 

The symbolism is important. It is part of the bigger narrative of European countries pulling together in the face of the threat of Russia and being willing to increase defense spending. It sends an important message of solidarity. Had it been a no, it would have sent a signal that Denmark was not part of this historic consensus. In practice, it does not matter so much. It has been Denmark’s problem that we could not participate.  

Denmark is not a big military player, but is there something Danish defense can offer the EU?

The Danish government has been quite willing to send soldiers into rather tough situations. In Afghanistan and Iraq for example, and also in French-led operations in Africa which we have seen lately, which is a plus. But we have to remember that the EU’s common defense and security policy does not contain so many of these kinds of operations. A big part of EU’s common defense policy is about cooperation on military technology and development, and the Danish defense industry is tiny. It is really the symbolism which is important.

This result comes after Finland and Sweden’s NATO application and the Nordic countries are now soon to be united both in EU and NATO (only Norway is not in the EU). What does that mean?

It might be significant. 

For many years there has been an attempt to make some kind of security cooperation between the Nordic countries. Until now it’s been with limited success because of the different statuses of being in and out of NATO and the EU respectively.

Now Nordic security cooperation can be done within the framework of the EU and NATO. This makes everything easier. The countries are still different though; since the 1990s, Denmark has developed this very activist foreign policy, whereas Norway and Sweden have maintained the traditional Nordic focus on peace-building, the United Nations, and diplomacy. 

In collaboration with Hannah Vos

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