Danish voters give strong ‘yes’ to joining EU defense policy

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — With nearly all votes counted from a referendum Wednesday, Denmark is headed toward joining the European Union’s common defense policy that it long eschewed, a new example of a country in Europe seeking closer defense links with allies after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The electoral commission said that with ballots fully counted in 84 of 92 Denmark’s electoral districts, 66.9% voted in favor of abandoning the country’s 30-year opt-out from the common EU policy and 33.1% against.

“An overwhelming majority of Danes have chosen to abolish the defense opt-out. I’m very, very happy about that,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said.

“We have sent a clear signal to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin,” she added. “With the decision we have made, we show that when Putin invades a free and independent country and threatens peace and stability, we will move closer together.”

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On Twitter, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock applauded the outcome of the Danish vote. “Every step each of us takes, makes us stronger in the face of these tectonic shifts.”

Ending Denmark’s opt-out would have limited practical effect for either Denmark or the EU. The referendum follows the historic bids by fellow Nordic countries Sweden and Finland to join NATO — something to be taken up at a summit next month.

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For Denmark, a founding member of the 30-member defense alliance, 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 will be that Danish officials could stay in the room when EU colleagues discuss defense topics, and Danish forces can take part in EU military operations, such as those in Africa and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It would be the first time that one of the four Danish opt-outs from the EU’s Maastricht Treaty, which laid the foundation for political and economic union, is scrapped by voters in Denmark.

”I believe people have voted yes because of the war in Ukraine. The ‘yes’ side has tried to misuse the war in Ukraine to make the Danes feel that it is important that we stand together,” said Morten Messerschmidt, the leader of the opposition Danish People’s Party and a leading opponent of removing the defense opt-out.

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 military alliance.

For decades, Europe’s been a source of contention in Denmark. In 1992, voters set back plans to turn the European construction into a union by rejecting the Maastricht treaty amid widespread opposition to a federal European government that could limit the sovereignty of individual nations.

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At an EU summit in Edinburgh, Scotland, later that year, European leaders agreed on a text with tailor-made provisions allowing Danes to ratify a revised treaty with four provisions.

They allowed Danes to stay out of a joint EU citizenship, justice and home affairs, the monetary union which allowed Danes to stay out of the euro and keep the krone, and defense.

The citizenship issue, 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. In a 2000 referendum, Danish voters decided to stay outside the euro and 15 years later they voted to keep the exemption on justice and home affairs.

Frederiksen, who Wednesday became the first Danish prime minister to win a referendum on removing an opt-out, said she was not tempted to test other opt-outs in plebiscites.

Turnout was 66.23%, according to initial official figures.

Myanmar’s military government and its opponents traded accusations over a bomb that exploded Tuesday in the middle of the country’s largest city, Yangon, killing one and wounding nine others.

Photos and videos of Tuesday’s bombing that circulated on social media showing the bloodied victims sprawled on the sidewalk were a sharp reminder of the violence that has engulfed the country since the military seized power last year.

A story in Wednesday’s edition of The Global New Light of Myanmar, a state-run newspaper, blamed the People’s Defense Forces, the opposition movement’s armed wing, but did not supply any evidence linking them to the blast.

It said the attack was made with a “handmade bomb planted by PDF terrorists at a bus stop” roughly one block from the Sule Pagoda, a city landmark. The blast occurred at 3:20 p.m. and a 30-year-old man died of wounds in his chest and abdomen, state media said.

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A spokesperson for the self-styled National Unity Government, the main opposition body that loosely commands the PDF and its various local units, pinned the blame on the military government.

“The brutal genocidal military has been carrying out senseless bombings and killings against its own civilian population across Myanmar,” said a statement by Sasa, the NUG’s Minister of International Cooperation.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since last year’s army takeover seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, sparking widespread nonviolent protests that were quashed with lethal force by the army and police. In turn, opponents of military rule took up arms and are now conducting an active insurgency in many parts of the country.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says 1,876 civilians, mostly in cities and towns, have been killed by the security forces. Their figures do not generally include casualties of war in the countryside.

On Wednesday, the international human rights organization Amnesty International accused Myanmar’s military of carrying out widespread atrocities in the eastern part of the country that constitute war crimes and probably crimes against humanity.

It charges in a report that civilians from the Karen and Karenni ethnic minorities have been the targets of unlawful killing, arbitrary detention and forcible displacement.

“The world’s attention may have moved away from Myanmar since last year’s coup, but civilians continue to pay a high price,” Rawya Rageh, Amnesty’s senior crisis adviser, said in a news release.

The opposition NUG’s Defense Ministry in a Wednesday statement said the ruling military “have sought to place blame on ethnic resistance groups and revolutionary forces in similar incidents in the past.”

Urban guerrillas are part of the resistance movement, carrying out targeted killings of people associated with the military and bombings of establishments with official ties.