Why the Danish Opt-out Referendum Sets the Right Course for Central Europe5 min read
On 1 June 2022, Danes made their decision. After 30 years Denmark’s opt-out clause on the EU defence cooperation will be dropped thanks to 66.9 percent of voters who voted ‘yes’. The outcome of the referendum resonates beyond Northern Europe, giving fuel to proponents of European integration in other parts of the continent. Among those who should tune in to the message coming from Copenhagen are Central European political elites.
In 1992, Danes narrowly voted against the Maastricht Treaty and their country’s full participation in a more ambitious European foreign and security policy. They were not ready to agree on what they presumably believed would weaken their sovereignty. They were also doubtful about establishing a common EU defence policy while the world around was undergoing great changes. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO and the US seemed the only anchor Denmark needed.
Since unanimity was needed to ratify the deal, all Member States had to come up with an alternative. The solution came in the form of the so-called Edinburgh Agreement (sometimes referred to as the Edinburgh Protocol), in which Denmark secured four opt-outs: European citizenship, the Euro, as well as judicial and defence cooperation. Danes became ‘reluctant Europeans’.
Post-communist countries, on the other hand, strived to join every Western organisation available. The Council of Europe (CoE) provided recognition of democratic principles and human rights. The EU (together with all the steps leading to accession) boosted trade and soft security. NATO provided deterrence for potential aggressors. While the Nordics were cautious and selective, trusting in their remoteness, Central Europe embarked on a the-more-the-better policy.
This situation has reversed over the last few years. As Nordics seek more cooperation, many Central European governments and political elites are pursuing a populist mix of nationalism and traditionalism backed by increased social spending. At the core of their policies lies scepticism or even hostility towards the EU and regarding its institutions as representatives of the demonised supranational liberal order.
Paradoxically, they can do so thanks to their successful Euro-Atlantic integration: billions of euros in cohesion funds, tight economic ties with West European partners and the security umbrella provided by NATO. Last year, Poland became Germany’s 5th largest import and 4th largest export partner. Visegrad Group countries rank 1st altogether.
The elephant in the room is Hungary. Viktor Orbán spent recent years limiting civil liberties and creating ‘clientelism democracy’, largely by redistributing EU funds to his acolytes. His power relies also on imperial sentiment, built around the myth of the imposed treaty of Trianon that deprived Hungary of two-thirds of its pre-1914 territory. This narrative causes concern in neighbouring Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine. On top of that, Hungary has been blocking more ambitious EU sanctions against Russia.
Just days before the Danish referendum, Orbán co-hosted the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), attended by politicians known for openly racist and anti-Semitic statements. At CPAC, Donald Trump praised Orbán for winning another parliamentary election. During the campaign, the Hungarian prime minister visited Moscow and declared a close partnership with Vladimir Putin.
No more illusions
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dispelled the comfortable illusions present among both Northern and Central European political elites (except for Hungary). The former is becoming aware of the false sense of security it had believed in for many years, while the latter is realising the field of manoeuvre for reaping EU benefits with no strings attached is shrinking. Although one would think they would all draw similar conclusions, the reality is far more complicated.
It took only two weeks for Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to announce – together with the leaders of main political parties – a national agreement on Danish security policy including the referendum, a historical boost to defence spending and plans to phase out Russian gas. It was a relatively easy choice, stemming from the country’s culture of compromise and care for public good shared by a vast majority of the political class. This approach has been visible in many other areas and has also contributed to toning down disputes over less controversial issues.
For now, such a high degree of cooperation seems unimaginable in Central Europe. The political scene in many countries of the region (but also in Italy or the United Kingdom) has fallen victim to artificially created narratives according to which everything and everyone needs to be clearly defined in black and white, with no hues of grey allowed.
Adhering to basic democratic principles across the Baltic-Black-Adriatic Sea triangle matters because it strengthens the institutional framework of cooperation when it is most needed.
Just two weeks before the Danish referendum, Russia decided to leave the Council of the Baltic Sea States, established in Copenhagen at the same time the Maastricht Treaty was signed. While inhabitants of Kaliningrad and Saint-Petersburg suffer from decisions made in Moscow, their neighbours need to unite even more.
Other regional groupings, such as the recently dysfunctional Visegrad Group and the still vague Trimarium Initiative, which seeks to create infrastructural connections across the central and eastern part of the continent, will succeed only if they are backed by media pluralism, inclusiveness and dropping artificial conflicts.
Central European governments also need to be on the lookout for a positive, pro-EU agenda because the last 30 years have shown their strength lies in unity. Their economies still have a lot of catching up to do to avoid the middle-income trap and narrow the development gap with the western half of the continent. Ideological disputes and deep political divisions make this increasingly difficult in times of an open military conflict in Ukraine, rising energy and food prices, as well as challenges related to green transition.
On 1 June, the Danes admitted there is no alternative to increased European integration. Their decision shows the attractiveness of the benefits the EU offers in times of uncertainty. It is a strong signal to Central Europe that principle-based cooperation is the only way to go.
Stoking the flame of artificial conflicts over the rule of law, LGBTQ+ rights or slowing down the green transition will result in losing a historic chance to cement the successful transition of the 1990s and 2000s. After all, even Eurosceptic Danes, traditionally cautious about advancing supranational integration, sent a signal to right-wing radicals and traditionalists; intra-European cohesion does not mean fewer sovereign rights or loss of national identity.