COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Polling stations opened in Denmark for voters to decide Wednesday whether to abandon their country’s 30-year-old opt-out from the European Union’s common defense policy.
The referendum is the latest example of European countries seeking closer defense links with allies in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It follows Sweden and Finland’s historic bids to join NATO, which plans to take up their applications at the end of the month.
Some 4.2 million Danish voters are eligible to cast ballots in the referendum. The “yes” side – in favor of getting rid of the 1992 opt-out – has been ahead in recent months. Polls showed it with around 40% support and the “no” side with 30%.
“The world is changing, and not in a good way. We need to stand together and strengthen the cooperation that strengthens our security,” Jakob Ellemann-Jensen, head of the opposition Liberal Party, said as he handed out flyers Wednesday in a last-minute attempt to convince undecided voters to vote “yes.”
Recent polls showed that about 20% of voters remained undecided.
Denmark joining the EU’s defense policy would have a relatively modest impact on Europe’s security architecture, particularly compared to Sweden and Finland joining NATO. But Christine Nissen, a researcher with the Danish Institute for International Studies, said both moves were “part of the same story,” and would strengthen military cooperation on a continent stunned by the war in Ukraine.
The main effect of abandoning the opt-out would be that Danish officials could stay in the room when EU colleagues discuss defense topics, and Danish forces could take part in EU military operations.
One of the founding members of NATO, Denmark has stayed on the sidelines of the EU’s efforts to build a common security and defense policy in parallel with the trans-Atlantic NATO alliance. It was one of four opt-outs that Danes insisted on before adopting the EU’s Maastricht Treaty, which laid the foundation for political and economic union.
The waiver means Denmark has not participated in the EU’s discussions on defense policy, its development and acquisition of military capabilities and its joint military operations, such as those in Africa and Bosnia.
In a 1993 referendum, Denmark also opted out of cooperation in EU justice and home affairs, the common currency and citizenship. The citizenship opt-out, which said European citizenship would not replace national citizenship, has since become irrelevant as other members later adopted the same position. But the other provisions remain intact despite efforts by successive government to overturn them.
Danish voters in 2000 decided to stay outside the eurozone, and 15 years later they voted to keep the exemption on justice and home affairs.