Denmark holds referendum on EU defense amid Ukraine war

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Historically skeptical about European Union efforts to deepen cooperation, Danish voters on Wednesday will choose whether to abandon the country’s decision three decades ago to opt out of the bloc’s common defense policy.

The Danish referendum comes as 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 — something to be taken up at a summit next month.

Denmark joining the EU 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 are “part of the same story,” and would strengthen military cooperation on a continent stunned by the war in Ukraine.

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She said the main effect of abandoning the opt-out decision would be that Danish officials could stay in the room when EU colleagues discuss defense topics and Danish forces could take part in the bloc’s military operations.

Denmark, a founding member of NATO, has stayed on the sidelines of EU efforts to build a common security and defense policy in parallel with the trans-Atlantic alliance. It was one of four opt-out moves that Danes insisted on before adopting the EU’s Maastricht Treaty, which laid the foundation for political and economic union.

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The 1992 waiver means Denmark hasn’t 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 and Herzegovina.

The Danes also opted out of EU cooperation on justice and home affairs, the common currency and citizenship. The opt-out decision on citizenship, which said European citizenship wouldn’t 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 governments to overturn them.

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

This time, however, Danes appear ready to say goodbye to opting out of common defense.

Social Democratic Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called for the referendum on March 8, less than two weeks after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. She called on citizens to vote “yes” to abolishing the exception, saying to do so “will strengthen our security.”

“I am voting in favor of abolishing the opt-out” decision, said Peter Jakobsen, a 61-year-old pharmacist in Copenhagen. “We must not stand outside. We are in the EU and we must be involved. We must make a difference.”

But Sanne Michelsen, a 52-year-old shopper in Copenhagen, said she didn’t see the point of suddenly joining the EU’s defense policy after years on the outside.

“This is a referendum about an opt-out that has never caused us any problem,” she said in her native Danish, before turning to English to add. “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.’”

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The “yes” side has had a clear lead in polls, with about 40% in favor of dropping the exemption and 30% against. About a fourth of voters say they are still undecided.

There is widespread support for dropping the defense opt-out decision in Parliament. Only three small parties want to maintain it, two on the right and one on the left.

Russian troops pushed deeper into a key eastern Ukrainian city Monday, fighting street by street with Kyiv’s forces in a battle that has left Sievierodonetsk in ruins. In a bid to pressure Moscow to end the war, the European Union agreed to embargo most Russian oil imports by the end of the year.

As Moscow’s advance on Sievierodonetsk increased in intensity, Russian forces also shelled parts of Ukraine’s northeast, and a struggle continued for control of a southern region. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, meanwhile, said Russia has prevented the export of 22 million tons of Ukrainian grain, contributing to a growing global food crisis.

Military analysts described the fight for Sievierodonetsk as part of a race against time for the Kremlin. The city is important to Russian efforts to quickly complete the capture of the eastern industrial region of the Donbas before more Western arms arrive to bolster Ukraine’s defense. Moscow-backed separatists already held territory in the region and have been fighting Ukrainian troops for eight years.

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“The Kremlin has reckoned that it can’t afford to waste time and should use the last chance to extend the separatist-controlled territory because the arrival of Western weapons in Ukraine could make it impossible,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said.

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In a potential setback for Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden appeared to dismiss reports that the U.S. was considering sending long-range rocket systems to the country.

But the European Union approved additional sanctions on Russia. As part of a long-delayed financial support package to help Ukraine, EU leaders agreed Monday to embargo most Russian oil imports into the 27-nation bloc by year-end. The agreement came after Zelenskyy asked the EU to target Russian oil exports so Moscow “feels the price for what it is doing against Ukraine.”

The embargo covers Russian oil brought in by sea, allowing a temporary exemption for imports delivered by pipeline. EU Council President Charles Michel said the agreement covers more than two-thirds of oil imports from Russia. Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the EU’s executive branch, said the move will “effectively cut around 90% of oil imports from Russia to the EU by the end of the year.”

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In an effort to punish and divide the West over its support for Ukraine, Russia has cut off natural gas to a handful of European countries. In its latest move, Russian state gas giant Gazrpom said it will halt gas supplies to Dutch gas trader GasTerra starting Tuesday.

Russia also ramped up its actions on the battlefield. In his nightly video address, Zelenskyy said the situation in the Donbas remains “extremely difficult” as Russia has put its army’s “maximum combat power” there.