By Nikolaj Skydsgaard
COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – Danes vote on Wednesday to decide whether to join the European Union’s defense policy, potentially becoming the bloc’s latest obstacle to signing up as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forces the countries to radically reassess their security.
Denmark is the only member of the 27-nation bloc not to be part of the Common Security and Defense Policy, having won exemptions from it and the euro in a 1993 referendum on the Treaty of Maastricht, which laid the foundations of the modern EU.
If the notoriously EU-critical Danes vote to abolish the opt-out, as polls suggest, it would mark another significant change in Europe’s politics after the invasion was launched by Russia in February.
Sweden and Finland decided this month to apply for NATO membership. Denmark and Germany have already promised to increase defense spending sharply.
“NATO will of course remain our most important tool, but the EU gives us another tool to defend ourselves in the East,” said Mogens Jensen, defense spokesman for the ruling Social Democrats.
Denmark is a founding member of NATO, but the alliance’s largest military power, the United States, has signaled that European allies must take greater responsibility for their own security.
Participation in the Common Security and Defense Policy would allow Denmark to participate in joint EU military operations, such as those in Somalia, Mali and Bosnia.
And while the EU will benefit from Denmark’s vast experience in military operations in NATO and other alliances, a yes vote would mostly be seen as a symbolic victory in Brussels, according to Kristian Soby Kristensen , senior researcher at the Center for Military Studies.
“The political significance will outweigh the military contribution,” Kristensen told Reuters.
A large majority in parliament recommends the removal of the opt-out. Wednesday’s vote will be the third such attempt by Danish lawmakers to lift one of the 1993 opt-out clauses after votes on the euro in 2000 and on justice and home affairs in 2015, all of which two failed.
Preliminary polls showed a solid lead over those voting in favor of abolishing the opt-out, with nearly 48% in favor and 31% against.
Opponents have argued that EU defense cooperation is strained by bureaucracy and inefficient decision-making, while also fearing the prospect of having to contribute to a possible EU supranational army.
The EU does not intend to establish a supranational army within the bloc, but has decided to form a rapid deployment force of up to 5,000 troops.
Polling stations close at 6:00 p.m. GMT. The result is expected late in the evening.
(Reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard; Editing by Alison Williams)