Why keeping Britain ‘in’ is essential for Danish foreign policy

The UK has been a core partner and ally for Denmark in EU foreign policy since 1973 – there would be serious consequences for Denmark if Britain left 

Like the UK, Denmark has a qualified engagement with the EU with its four opt-outs and its euro-sceptic public. The two countries share many of the same foreign policy interests and the weight of the UK in the EU system promoting these interests is crucial for “baby-brother” Denmark. There are at least three vital foreign policy interests at stake for Denmark if the UK leaves the EU:

A free trade partner

Britain is a strong partner in promoting free trade and strengthening liberalisation of the common market, not least by pushing for trade agreements, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Trade agreements such as TTIP, and potential future ones with Japan and India, where the UK is the frontrunner, does not only promise much-needed economic growth for Europe, but can also prove as a geopolitical means for the West to face the rise of new powers. Without the UK’s engagement as well as position, countries like Denmark, will have a harder time pursuing such interests in the council.

For Denmark, trade remains a main foreign policy priority in its EU membership. Since Denmark joined the EU in 1973 for mainly economic imperatives, the dominant understanding of the EU in Denmark has been a pragmatic one. Therefore, the Danish public and political parties are generally supportive of EU cooperation when it has instrumental advantages for Denmark, legitimising EU cooperation by its perceived economic utility for Denmark.

In the case of a “Brexit” the EU would lose an influential liberalising member, which could potentially shift the balance of power in the council where trade-loving countries will have a harder time pushing through a majority against protectionist countries that may succeed in blocking trade-related proposals.

The transatlantic link and NATO

If the UK leaves the EU, the transatlantic relationship, as well as the link between NATO and CSDP is likely to become weakened. Whereas Britain traditionally has been reserved in regards to adding a military dimension to EU cooperation in fear of losing the US as an ally and NATO as the main military framework, they have also been a driver for constituting the CSDP as we know it today. After the devastating Yugoslav wars in the 1990s that displayed the inadequacy of the EU and the reluctance of the US to get involved, the UK came to the conclusion that cooperation on defence in an EU framework was necessary and that the strengthening of the Atlantic alliance was not threatened but rather dependent on the development of a European defence project.

The inter-institutional relationship between the EU and NATO will be more difficult to develop since no other EU member state places the same emphasis on NATO as the primary military framework as the UK. EU defence cooperation with NATO may therefore become neglected and some member states may thus push for enhancing EU defence capabilities at the expense of the NATO framework.

While a Brexit could therefore prove conducive to greater political integration and more coherent external representation in EU foreign policy, this would be a significant contention point for Denmark. Denmark is dependent on a well-developed EU-NATO relationship as well as a well-strong transatlantic relationship. Due to the Danish opt-out of all defence-related aspects of the EU foreign policy cooperation, Denmark hasa unique perspective on European security and defence issues that sets it apartfrom the European mainstream. The opt-out has resulted in Danish military policybeing conducted through NATO, the UN and bilaterally with the US and the UK.

Member states on the periphery

The UK has been contributing to preventing a marginalisation of non-Eurozone countries, but if the UK leaves we may see more discussions on financial and economic matters taking place amongst the Eurozone members. It seems likely that the development of the EU not only will proceed in different speeds but can also be reversed and even stall in some cases.

This will cause considerable problems for a country like Denmark, which is not a full member of the inner circle due to its opt-outs. Denmark has a reserved relationship to the EU, not least exemplified by eight referendums held on the EU, where the Danes had to vote on deepening European integration. The latest was held on 3 December 2015 where the Danish population once again said no to increased EU cooperation on home and justice affairs by rejecting to lift the current opt-out on the matter – much to the surprise of the political establishment. The referendums and the opt-outs are a reflection of a general trend in the Danish relationship to the EU, namely a public reticence towards political integration in Europe and fear of abrogating sovereignty. This bears similarities to the UK’s relationship with the EU and their current endeavour of renegotiating EU membership.

The awkward squad

More than ever, Denmark needs the UK as its awkward partner in the EU. With the new Danish liberal government who took office in the summer 2015, the “special” relationship between Denmark and the UK has reached a new highpoint.

Traditionally, the Danish line on the EU has been largely dependent on a close political and economic friendship with the neighbouring countries, Sweden and Germany, but the diplomatic ties to Sweden and Germany has recently been put to the test by the refugee crisis. With the re-introduction of border controls to both Sweden and Germany, as well as a fundamentally different view on how to deal with the immigration influx, Denmark has lesser in common with its old friends these days when it comes to EU policy.

Instead, Denmark see the UK as a like-minded partner on most issues whether it is refugees or Cameron’s quest to renegotiate British EU membership. Denmark share the UK vision for future EU cooperation, not least when it comes to Cameron’s demands as put forward in the draft for a re-negotiation plan and would be eager to see Cameron’s recovery of sovereignty and reform of social benefits be extended to include other member states as well.

If the UK leaves, Denmark will not only lose a strong voice in promoting similar interests in the EU system, but will also lose a friend, in an environment where Denmark currently has fewer friends than it used to.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Danish Institute for International Studies

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