Ukraine’s military has been having a hard time lately, with relentless pressure from the Russian invaders slowly pushing back the front line in the Donbas. But support from public opinion in the west remains strong, as evidenced by yesterday’s referendum in Denmark.
The vote was not directly about Ukraine, but the relevance was clear. Prompted by Russia’s invasion, Danish politicians agreed in March to support joining the European Union’s security and defence policy – from which the country had previously held aloof, as part of a series of exemptions (adoption of the euro is another) that it negotiated before agreeing to the Maastricht treaty in 1993.
That required approval of the voters in a referendum. With the support of all parties except the far left and far right, there was not much doubt that it would be carried, but the polls beforehand suggested less than overwhelming support, and there’s often a tendency in such votes for the undecided to opt for “no”. Instead, however, Danes swung to “yes”, voting to abolish the opt-out by just over two to one, with 66.9% in favor (see official results here). Turnout was a modest 65.8%.
It’s a good result for Denmark’s centre-left prime minister Mette Frederiksen, who faces an election in the first half of next year. But it’s also encouraging for the people of Ukraine, suggesting that the lesson the Europeans are drawing from the war – not just the leaders, but their voters as well – is about the need for increased resistance and defence preparedness. Which is, of course, exactly the opposite of what Russia’s Vladimir Putin was hoping to achieve.
Denmark is already a member of NATO, so the decision doesn’t have the same practical impact as the applications for NATO membership by neighboring Sweden and Finland; the short-term effect is basically symbolic. But it also raises the question of why NATO membership matters so much by comparison.
Sweden and Finland, despite their historic neutrality, have no opt-out; they already participate in the EU’s security activities. But although that includes many valuable things, it does not amount to a true military alliance: there is no EU army and no integrated military command. The EU members may (or may not) come to one another’s aid if attacked, but they are not set up specifically to do that. NATO is.
There are a vast number of multilateral treaties and institutions in the world, many of which involve impressive-sounding mutual commitments. What matters, however, is not the rhetoric but the concrete mechanisms put in place to implement it. The EU has been highly effective in that way in economic matters; the European single market is a real thing. Its defence co-operation may one day go the same way, but for now it is largely aspirational.
Denmark’s previous reluctance to join was part of a general habit of Euroscepticism rather than a rejection of the idea of common defence. But with Europe this year having suddenly become a much more dangerous place, it makes sense to decide that more co-operation is a good idea.
At some point, more work will probably need to be put into defining the precise relationship between NATO and the EU, as part of the larger question of the relationship between Europe and the United Sates. For the moment, however, they seem to moving in the same direction: providing not just assistance to Ukraine, but also a demonstration of why it, and other countries like it, should want to be members.