Danish experts: The current crisis encourages the Eastern EU nations to look for their own solutions

Denmark is an old member of the EU from Western Europe, supportive of European strategic autonomy. But it is also a country with its own security and economic interests, which align it with non-EU, euro-atlantic countries.

A talk with Rasmus Sørensen and Zlatko Jovanovic of the Democracy in Europe Organization on the Danish attitude towards the EU project, towards the attempts for strategic ambiguity in the Eastern part of the EU and towards some non-conventional ideas in Southeastern Europe for showing to the Western Europeans that the region is capable to have its own regional integration and dynamics

Denmark’s role in the EU

Vladimir MItev: What are Denmark’s or the Danish people’s attitudes towards the EU?

Rasmus Sørensen: I think it’s important to note that in Denmark we’ve had a very vivid and politicized debate on the EU since our membership referendum in 1972. During these 50 years of membership, we’ve had nine referendums on EU issues. On the treaties, on the big decisions we’ve seen a “yes” among the Danish population and on the specific opt outs of Denmark. The opt out, regarding the euro as a currency with defense and the justice and home affairs opt out.

We’ve had “no” to several referendums until this year, when the Danish people by a large margin voted to join the defense cooperation of the EU countries. So this is sort of the overview of 50 years of EU debate in Denmark. It’s been vivid, it’s been important in national politics as well. And the Danish population has been more or less divided 50-50 on EU issues for several years.

And what is the explanation about this division, given that Denmark is in the Western Europe? We would think it’s a core country of the EU, not a country with specifics, at least from our point of view here…

Rasmus Sørensen: Yes, well, you could say that Denmark is a sort of traditional member of the EU and as such a core member. But if you look at the Danish people, they are more like the British. They are divided on whether the EU should become more of a federation, a super nation above Denmark or something else. However, while the population is divided, the politicians, the government and the leading Danish figures in the EU system are pro-EU, pro-more federal Europe, you could say. So we have a divide between the leaders and the people in Denmark. 

However, Denmark, as an actor in the EU system, is very much at the core of several questions. Well, we do have these opt outs, so we are in the sort of slow lane when it comes to economic politics, because we do not participate at the Euro Zone meetings. Also, we do not participate in decisions on immigration policy, on justice and home affairs at large. Decisions on Europol, on cooperation, on criminal justice – these things. 

Before the big enlargement which included Eastern European countries, Denmark was a not-so- enthusiastic member of the EU. Now it is seen more as a core member.

Denmark and EU’s future

What were the pros and cons of Denmark’s joining the EU defense policy?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine changed the perspective among the population and politicians in Denmark. And there has never been, or at least not for a few decades, we haven’t seen fierce resistance to the EU’s foreign policy and defense policy in Denmark. And that’s because it’s mainly been politics at NATO’s level. So it’s not been EU politics that’s been important.

But now with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I think the Danish politicians at large wanted Denmark to join each and every cooperation on security politics possible. And I think the population wanted that as well. So we had limited resistance to that decision from political parties and movements, and we had a huge margin, more than 66% of the population or the voters voted to join the defense policy of the EU. I think it was the new security situation that changed this.

This spring, a process of deliberation called Conference for the Future of Europe ended. One of its recommendations is that the EU treaties are renegotiated or rather redefined, which is seen with certain skepticism by the countries of the Eastern part of the EU. Perhaps they fear that their weight or influence in a redefined balance of forces will be smaller. Curiously, Denmark, as far as I know, is also skeptical towards redefinition or renegotiation of the EU treaties. Why is it like that?

Rasmus Sørensen: I think there is a historic answer to that and there’s a political answer, too. Since the debate on membership in the 70s, Danish politicians have promised that there would be no European Union, there’d be no European Federation or United States of Europe. And we even have a famous quote from a Danish prime minister, Paul Schluter, who in the eighties said that the union is stone dead… but just a very few years after it was very much alive. So we have a sort of historic skepticism towards a federal Europe.

The political answer is that Denmark is a small country, and with the current treaty, there’s the right of veto on several decisions. Danish politicians are not really interested in losing that power. They are afraid to explain that to the Danish population.

If you change the sovereignty division between EU and Denmark, if Denmark has to give up sovereignty, we need a referendum. And most of the referendums on giving up sovereignty have ended with a no from the Danish population, like, most recently, the referendum on justice and home affairs in 2015, and before that the referendum on joining the euro in 2000.

So I think there’s a sort of an internal politics in Denmark. It’s too much of a risk to ask the population and there’s sort of the realpolitik foreign policy takes. Denmark is afraid of losing the right to veto.

The strategic ambiguity of Southeastern Europe 

Ok, it’s already a cliche that times are changing. I mean, changing significantly. So we see now a situation in which Sweden and Finland, longtime neutral countries, have decided to join the NATO and at the same time an important country with the second largest army in NATO – Turkey, is playing some kind of strategic ambiguity, for example, declaring recently that it will pay for Russian gas in rubles and apparently helping Russia tohave greater trade through Turkey, while a number of other Western countries somehow is trying to limit trade, especially in energy resources with Russia. So can you comment on the specific role which Turkey is adopting in this situation, the role of a mediator between-  let’s simplify them – the West and “the East”, even though it’s more complex than that. And what does the rise of the role of a strategically ambiguous Turkey mean for south eastern Europe?

Rasmus Sørensen: That’s a very difficult question. We saw up to 2000 several years where Turkey approached Western powers and the European Union and we’ve seen negotiations on membership. But these arrangements and negotiations, they’re stranded now. So Turkey has sort of hit a wall with European countries. So this has put them in a difficult strategic position. 

Regarding Turkey now, I think on the one hand, we need someone to negotiate with the Russians. We need someone to be a neutral zone for peace negotiations at some point. Not right now, but, we hope, pretty soon. On the other hand, there’s a feeling that Turkey is betraying Europe and especially the Southeastern European countries as I see it.

 So we have an ambiguous situation, because the EU is not such a strategic or a security political actor. It’s not a military power. Germany might eventually become just that, and France is. So maybe things will be changing. But as it is now, there’s no united front in Europe on how to tackle Turkey. That is not a very good situation for Eastern European countries and especially not for Southeastern or Balkan countries.

A lot depends on the developments in Ukraine and how Turkey will react to that, whether they will seek a common understanding and a common front, maybe even with Western countries, maybe not.

Well, let me hypothesize what it could mean for our region. What if some of our countries will be in itself or will become in themselves more strategically ambiguous? For example, there is a new government in Sofia which was formed at the beginning of this month, and it gives some signs that it is eager to renew negotiations with Gazprom over deliveries of Russian gas through Turkey. There have also been other signs that the Turkish role in Bulgarian politics might be rising, given that the leader of the party of the Bulgarian Turks announced that he has been recently welcomed by Erdogan in Turkey. And this Bulgarian politician said that Turkey can help in a harsh winter. That is his basic message after returning from Turkey. And. Do you think Southeastern Europe can somehow get inspired from Turkey to be itself more strategically ambiguous?

Rasmus Sørensen: There’s no doubt that the energy dependence in several countries, Hungary as well, and Eastern and Southeastern Europe as well is a huge problem. I think all states are in a situation where we have a crisis, we have a security threat. So the states begin to think more in terms of real politics or more in terms of power plays. 

How much will that change the position of the South European countries and other Eastern European countries? Definitely it will change it.

I think it’s not obvious for Northern countries or large countries like Germany and France how important it is to have an outstretched hand to these countries. So I think it’s difficult to agree on an EU level how to help each other. Instead,  everyone’s becoming more or less egoistic or nationalist in the policy towards the EU and foreign policy in general.

But I do think that it’s a very dangerous course to take to to play on horses like Hungary has done. It is risky to play on both the European and Russian horse and place a country between those two very large axes. I think that’s going to be increasingly difficult as the war in Ukraine progresses.

Zlatko, do you have anything to add on that?

Zlatko Jovanovic: Yeah, I want to add that Hungary is probably one of the best examples for strategic ambiguity. We also have to Western Balkan countries that are in the same situation. One is member state Croatia, where we even ended up having this very peculiar situation.

The Croatian president was, so to say, opposing Swedish and Finnish NATO’s membership and clearly stated that he would never send the Croatian soldiers to Ukraine –  no matter what happened there. On the other hand, the governing party and the prime minister had the opposite position. So there is even an internal political clash in some countries when it comes to this. 

In neighboring Serbia,the more and more authoritarian president Aleksandar Vucic has been playing his neutrality drums in terms of at one side, joining the UN in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On the other side, he is not willing to join economic sanctions against Russia.

Rasmus Sørensen: The independence of Russian gas or Russian energy is  not a simple thing. Had it been possible for the EU and Western allies to isolate Russia in the world market, it would have been an efficient strategy. But that is not possible as long as we have no agreement or common front with China, with large economies like Brazil or India and even Turkey. So we cannot isolate Russia. And that means if we want to decouple from Russian energy, we need to decouple from the global market, the global energy market. 

As Europe is not self-sufficient with any energy as it is now, this is very, very difficult. But what is being tried now at the EU level is to say that we need to pick deliverance of energy, we need to pick specific countries that we want to have energy from. But since all countries function as transit countries for energy, among them Bulgaria and Turkey, it is impossible not to buy Russian gas if you buy gas on the world market. And it’s not just gas, it’s also oil, coal, deliveries to nuclear power plants and gas.

 So if you’re a country that wants to decouple from Russian energy – it is very expensive and very difficult. Countries with a sort of fragile economy or or economic problems, they can’t do that. Maybe Germany can, maybe Denmark can. But several European countries are incapable of that, and therefore they are forced to make other decisions. 

Denmark’s place between euroatlantic current and that of the EU strategic autonomy

Before the war, there was this debate in the EU, between the Euro-Atlantic current and the strategic autonomy. What is the war affecting this debate? What is the current balance between them?

Rasmus Sørensen: I think the concept of strategic autonomy meets no opposition in the Danish government or among the Danish people.

We do want to be more strategically independent of the United States. Not least because we’ve seen Trump in the US and everybody can see that we need to have those sorts of alliances than the native to feel secure. So in that sense, the Russian invasion and the new security outlook has changed and we’ve seen that at the referendum on the defense policy of the EU. Denmark wants to be a part of that cooperation.

 On the other hand, if you look at what the EU countries and the EU is doing in foreign policy, it doesn’t really align with Danish interests. There are no Danish interests in Africa, for example, or and very few in England, in Belarus, Ukraine and so on. But Denmark has a huge commercial fleet that needs security. Denmark has Greenland and the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic. So Denmark shares a lot of strategic goals and interests with the non-EU countries, but NATO countries, Norway, the United Kingdom and the US and Canada. 

In that sense, Denmark cannot give up on those allies and change the focus to the European allies. France has no real interest in the same sphere as Denmark, and that goes for Germany as well. So that’s a sort of dilemma there for Denmark. I think on a political level, we see a turn towards Europe. But on the basic military level, it’s still not like that.

Mini-Schengen ares in Southeastern Europe

And finally, you are aware of the idea of Open Balkans in the Western Balkans, meaning Schengen area, which is encouraging economic exchanges between the countries. It appeared if I understand correctly, as some form of answer or reaction to the difficulty of walking the European road of integration for the region. Romania and Bulgaria are also specific cases, given that they are not in the Schengen area nor in the eurozone. They don’t have visa free travel to the USA, so they are still treated as a little bit more geopolitically specific. How do you evaluate the prospects of a mini-Schengen area between Bulgaria and Romania, which could increase the economic dynamics between them? It could show to the EU, Western Europe especially, that the two countries can protect their borders and can also manage many Schengen areas, a borderless space between themselves. It could also create more trust, but apparently it would also require greater cooperation between the security institutions of the two countries. So how realistic, how viable is such an idea? Would it bring them closer to you or could it make them even more specific than before?

Zlatko Jovanovic: If I may start, I will say that we also, as I mentioned before, have some experiences from a similar project in the Western Balkans. And the thing is that this is, again, ambiguous and pointing in two different directions. One is that such an integration can prove that if there is a good integration between Romania and Bulgaria, then it means that it could be also done with all the other countries. But at the same time, when making this kind of integration, you at the same time create a parallel system to what EU is seeking to achieve. We suddenly can end up with having, so to say, the double system of the double. We have cooperation between the two states or so to say regional level. And then we have the same type of cooperation which we are aiming at under general pan-European or EU level. So, for that reason, I think it could be a very good thing in approaching and solving some of these problems also because it enhances the idea of freedom of movement. But it’s not without its own problems.

Rasmus Sørensen: Yeah, I totally agree. It’s definitely not without problems. But I think in regarding the questions on whether Romania, Bulgaria can take steps closer to sort of full membership. I think the first thing to note is that multi-speed Europe is not something we might end up with. It is something that we have already. 

Several countries are not members of the eurozone. Denmark, and to some degree, Ireland as well, is not a member of the Justice and home affairs in several countries are outside of the Schengen system. So there is a multi-speed Europe and I think if we wanted to say Bulgaria and Romania could join the Schengen system, that would be difficult. Why? Because they don’t share interests with very many other countries, or they don’t have the relevant systems in place to be part of Schengen. 

We need a Europe where countries cooperate within the framework of the EU in specific instances. We cannot have a one-size-fits all Europe if we want it to function, especially during a crisis. That goes for energy policies and deliveries, because we have very different systems in Europe and it goes for security politics, it goes for Schengen and border control systems. So I think there’s no way around it.

 I think the countries in Europe should embrace that idea. We should start thinking on what kind of interests we share in Denmark, for example, and with Sweden, with Finland, with the Baltic countries, maybe even Poland and Germany. Can we make something there regarding transportation, energy, our stance towards Russia? And the same goes for the banks and regions.

Could it be that Romania and Bulgaria will be admitted to Schengen only when a certain major balance of forces change takes place in these countries? Meaning that Western European interests or Western European trust becomes even more stronger than now?

Rasmus Sørensen: Yeah. Western Europe can afford not to have them joining now. So it needs to have a specific interest in having them join. And that’s not there now.

But I think what Romania and Bulgaria could do is definitely decouple from Russia to the point that they politically align with Western Europe in all instances instead of Russia.

Of course, combating or diminishing corruption, improving democracy and the justice system and so on, that would definitely be good. But there’s no guarantee that a more democratic or less corrupt Bulgaria will join the Schengen area without certain engagement from, say, Germany or other big countries.

Photo: Rasmus Nørlem Sørensen (left) and Zlatko Jovanovic (right) are leading experts of the Danish organization Democracy in Europe (source: Zlatko Jovanovic)

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