Denmark set to join EU’s defense pact in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine

Danish voters approved joining the European Union’s defense pact in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, signaling a historic shift in the country that’s shunned deeper ties with the bloc.

The proponents of removing an opt-out on EU military cooperation garnered 66.9% of the vote, with 33.1% opposed, public broadcaster DR said late on Wednesday, with almost all votes preliminarily counted. 

The decision adds to seismic shifts in the European security set-up after President Vladimir Putin started a full-scale war against Ukraine in February. It would also mark the first time in almost three decades that the Nordic nation — traditionally skeptical about deeper European integration — has moved substantially closer to the trading bloc.

“When there’s a war on our continent we can’t be neutral,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said in a speech in Copenhagen. “Maybe this is the biggest ‘yes’ in an EU referendum ever in Denmark.”

A founding member of NATO, the country of 5.8 million people has remained the only one that doesn’t participate in EU’s defense pact out of 21 nations that belong to both EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. 

Denmark’s government called for the referendum in March and Frederiksen has said it’s crucial for the country to play a larger role in military operations and cooperation to help bring stability to the continent. 

Among the biggest jolts to the long-standing security arrangements in the region, Sweden and Finland are seeking NATO entry which requires overcoming Turkey’s opposition. 

Denmark’s southern neighbor Germany has announced a historic ramp-up of defense expenditure, including a 100 billion-euro ($107 billion) military spending fund that its politicians agreed this week to enshrine in the constitution.

The result shows a turnaround “for Danish defense and security policy similar to the movement we have seen in Germany,” Lykke Friis, director at Think Tank Europa, said by phone. “The large support to join the defense pact is also a sign that Danes, previously so skeptic about their EU membership, have become more supportive since Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidency.”

Having joined the EU along with the UK in 1973, Denmark is also outside of the euro area and the bloc’s partnerships on justice and home affairs. It has twice previously held ballots to get rid of opt-outs — on the euro and on justice — but the changes were rejected both times. Frederiksen, who faces parliamentary elections within a year, said she doesn’t want to remove the other reservations.

The vote coincided with Russia’s Gazprom PJSC halting natural gas deliveries to Denmark after Orsted A/S rejected Putin’s demand to pay for the fuel with rubles.

No-voters in Denmark feared that further involvement in the EU’s military operations would limit contributions to NATO. Danes have pledged to increase military spending from 1.3% of gross domestic product to 2% by 2033 to reach the goal that the military bloc has set for its members.

“It looks like Danes have sent a very clear signal that we want to be with our partners and neighbors when they are moving together and that is an important signal,” Defense Minister Morten Bodskov said in an interview in parliament.

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