On Wednesday we Danes will be voting on a referendum to answer the following question, which I’ll provide in the original Danish first:
Stemmer du ja eller nej til, at Danmark kan deltage i det europæiske samarbejde om sikkerhed og forsvar ved at afskaffe EU-forsvarsforbeholdet?
Do you vote yes or no to Denmark being able to participate in the European cooperation on security and defense by abolishing the EU defense reservation?
Here’s a politically neutral FAQ (I’m going with Google translate here to save time):
What is the defense reservation?
The defense reservation means that, as a general rule, Denmark does not participate in parts of the EU’s foreign and security policy that affect the defense area.
We do not participate in EU military operations, we do not fund them, and we do not provide troops and military equipment for EU-led missions in conflict areas. However, Denmark participates in civilian operations, which have so far made up the majority of the EU’s missions. Denmark can also participate in operations where there is both a civilian and a military part, if the individual parts can be separated. It is expected that in the future there will be more mixed civil-military missions, and that Denmark will therefore not be able to participate in these.
The defense reservation and Denmark’s influence
Denmark does not have the right to vote in the Council of Ministers when defense policy is discussed. In addition, the reservation has the consequence that Denmark, when we hold the presidency of the Council of Ministers, must leave the role of chairman to another member state when discussing defense policy. Despite these factors, however, Denmark participates in the broader and more general discussions of European defense policy.
The EU has no army
The EU has no common army. The EU countries themselves decide over their military forces, which are increasingly working with each other. The EU countries can decide that they will carry out a joint EU operation, but it is the countries themselves that are responsible for sending out their military and civilian contributions.
The EU has e.g. sent military missions to:
Patrol and fight against pirates off the coast of Somalia
Peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Protecting refugees from the crisis in Darfur (Sudan)
What we’re voting for on Wednesday is whether we wish to continue with this state of affairs, or abolish these reservations and allow ourselves to be governed by the EU’s “default settings” on military and security policy.
Almost every major party has come out in support of the referendum—that is, in favor of surrendering our military independence for a tighter integration into EU military and security arrangements. The big exceptions are the communists of Enhedslisten, the nativists of Dansk Folkeparti, and the nationalists of Nye Borgerlige.
I’ll be voting enthusiastically against the referendum because I don’t want Danmark more tightly integrated with the EU’s military and security operations, which are mostly a mess.
The Danish military can and will always be used in defense of Denmark. Why get ourselves tangled up in a military bureaucracy that has no actual military? Because it’s an important military alliance? We already have NATO for that—and (as we shall see) thank god for that.
Over at Berlingske, opinion editor Pierre Collignon is a strong supporter of the referendum (he describes himself as a “convinced yes voter”) but concedes my point:
The best and worst arguments for a no
Pierre Collignon (opinion), Berlignske.dk, May 28
I’m not going to parse his whole column—mainly I just want to address his “best argument.”
His “best argument” for the no vote, from his perspective as a yes voter, is that the EU has no will to defend itself.
He supports this premise with a stunning graphic from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. Here it is:
Those bars represent, in billions of euros, “Humanitarian, financial, and military contributions to Ukraine promised between 24 January and 10 May 2022.”
They also represent a Europe that’s amazingly unserious about its own defense: the top two nations on that chart aren’t even a part of “project Europe” and yet they’ve contributed (or pledged) more than four times as much as everyone else combined. (Roughly. It’s Sunday morning here; I’m just eyeballing this.)
Europe has been invaded by Russia—Russian tanks, planes, artillery, infantry.
And its staunchest defense is coming from places that aren’t Europe. That don’t even have a land bridge to European soil.
The aggregated line item for “EU institutions” hasn’t even matched one tenth of the US and UK contributions.
I agree with Collignon that that’s a legitimate reason to maintain our military and security independence from the EU. But I’d take it further and say it’s reason enough, on its own, not to entangle ourselves any more than necessary with the EU in areas of defense. It trumps any yes argument I’ve seen or heard.
Here’s how Collignon weaves and bobs his way out of that:
The EU and the European core countries thus still have a meager military capacity, and this leads some transatlantic-minded bourgeoisie to conclude that they would rather focus all of Denmark’s security policy commitment on NATO. Even the national conservative commentator and author Kasper Støvring now points out that “thanks to” Britain and the United States, the Ukrainians get the help they need.
“The EU simply can not figure out how to ensure the security of Europeans effectively,” Støvring wrote in a comment .
It’s a bit of a conversion. Støvring has for years been faithful to the German-French notion that one could pacify Russia by closing NATO’s door to Ukraine, but now his defeatism has been replaced by tribute to the United States. Hooray for that. It must be acknowledged that the United States is still the most important guarantor of Europe’s security.
There is every reason to think about that, so I can well understand if anyone is tempted to conclude that we should scrap all European plans, but that would still be a mistake. First and foremost, because European cooperation is in no way at odds with NATO. This is not an either-or. In the coming years, we must both strengthen NATO and develop an independent military capability in Europe.
It would be a mistake to “scrap all European plans” because co-operating with Europe isn’t at odds with NATO. That’s what he’s saying and it makes no sense.
Imagine you’re at a restaurant and order the salmon. It comes with a side of scalloped potatoes, but you don’t want all that starch so you ask the waiter to hold the potatoes.
The waiter assures you that the potatoes are perfectly capable of co-existing on your plate with the salmon. There’s no reason you can’t have the salmon and the potatoes—it’s not an either-or question: you can have them both!
In the immortal words of Plato: “Well, duh.”
He’s talking about what you could have. You’re talking about what you want—more specifically, what you don’t want.
Let’s try again.
Your best friend approaches you with a big rock and says:
“I want to hit you over the head with this rock.”
You say, “I’d rather you didn’t.”
Your friend says, “Why not? We could still be friends.”
Your friendship has nothing to do with it: you just don’t want your head smashed.
Notice that Collignon said “first and foremost.” In other words, this is his primary objection to the “Europe has no will to defend itself” argument but he has others.
Most of them are silly little fluff, mere rhetorical lint. (For example: the EU is weak but it’s going to strengthen itself and we should be part of that great strengthening. Also, bullets will be cheaper.)
His main remaining objection is—you can probably see this coming—Trump. My emphasis:
However, the very best answer to the “no” side’s pro-American argument can be found in the United States, and that’s Donald Trump. We must remember how Trump as president blocked military aid to Ukraine and how he created deep doubts about US commitment to Europe. So it is far from impossible for Trump or another equally unpredictable populist to move into the White House in January 2025.
We in Europe – and Denmark – must prepare for this to happen.
We can only cross our fingers, Pierre!
Trump’s blockage of military aid was temporary and conditional: in fact he ended up providing Ukraine with javelin missiles, while the best Obama could muster was blankets, night-vision goggles, counter-mortar radars, and medical supplies. More to the point, Russia didn’t invade anyone while Donald Trump was president. Putin invaded Georgia and the Crimea on Obama’s watch and rolled into Ukraine on Biden’s. That’s better? That’s the kind of American commitment to European security you prefer?
What’s more, Trump didn’t “create deep doubts” about America’s commitment to Europe (that was the media). What he did was articulate the very argument Collignon is acknowledging and trying desperately to argue against: he pointed out that Europe wasn’t taking its own defense seriously. It was a sentiment echoed by the General Secretary of NATO at the time: former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Their argument was very simple: why should American taxpayers be funding the defense of Europe when Europe’s own taxpayers weren’t even willing to?
In other words, it wasn’t creating doubts about the US commitment to Europe: it was stating well-founded doubts about Europe’s interest in defending itself.
Look at that chart again and tell me those doubts weren’t spot on.
So thanks for the input, Pierre Collignon, but this no vote isn’t budging.
I would go one step further and say that the EU cooperation is absolutely at odds with NATO. Participating in EU’s military will not be cheap, and each dollar of the defense budget spent on EU, is a dollar no longer spent on Denmark and, by extension, NATO.
Furthermore, splitting our defense into two different systems to appease more institutions (with limited ability to cooperate) sounds like the military version of the horror movie trope: “let’s split up, that way we’ll cover more ground.”
Very good points!