Denmark will answer the call!

Feb 9


Andrew Harri

Andrew Harri

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Denmark's military ambition amongst European and Nato nations.


While Denmark has constantly kept its position as an outsider within the European Union,Denmark will answer the call! Articles the country's recent stand on defence shows a new trend which may lead the Danes in the ESDP sooner than expected

A solid military tradition tested by the « 1864 syndrome »

Denmark owns a long-earned reputation as a nation of fierce warriors. As early as in the Middle Ages, Europe was greatly impacted by the raids conducted by Scandinavian Vikings under Danish leadership. Throughout the centuries, the Danish people have thus developed a strong sense of military self-reliance.

However, a series of setbacks influenced the national ethos. Starting in the 17th century with the loss of the Eastern provinces to Sweden, and ending in 1864 with a bloody defeat against Prussia and Austria, this era of military downfall left Denmark an isolated nation facing the newly established German Empire. As a result of what has been called by historians the « 1864 syndrome », Denmark subsequently opted for an armed neutrality, which prevailed during World War One. After the war, defence sceptics succeeded in disarming the country, which would have been no match against Hitler's armies anyway.

A military rebirth within NATO

With the end of World War two came a totally different era. Denmark and the other Nordic countries tried to shape a common defence union that was soon shadowed by NATO as Denmark joined the new Alliance as a founding member. For the first time in centuries, the Danes agree to fall under the protection of the most powerful ally of Western bloc: the United States. However, through the prism of the « 1864 syndrome », they kept seeing themselves as a nation at risk and they favoured a defensive approach all throughout the Cold War.

Nevertheless, Denmark developed step by step one of the finest military in Europe. Also, following the entrance of Germany in the Alliance, Denmark joined forces with its former enemy to form a special army corps designed to defend the Baltic borders. Today's scholars like Klaus Karsten Pedersen consider this military formation to be the first « Eurocorps » ever.

Shaping a European destiny alongside the EU

Denmark may be an original member of NATO, it has certainly not restrained the Danes from expressing their difference. In the 80s, a political coalition agreed on a different foreign and security policy which lead to a more conciliatory position towards the Eastern bloc. This different –softer- continental approach clashed with the American vision, and the Danish position was materialized by footnotes added to NATO policy papers. This so-called « footnote » period may be studied from many different angles, but at least it showed that Denmark could act independently from the Americans to defend its own European agenda.

In the years following the collapse of the Berlin wall, the specific defence approach adopted by Denmark became even more obvious. Although Denmark has often been associated with Great Britain because of its restrictive approach to the Maastricht treaty in 1992, the Danish opt-out from European defence activities has proven to be far more complex than the British position. In fact, it can be argued that the Danish opt-outs from a number of European Union policies helped save the Treaty of Maastricht. Moreover, not only did it not prevent Denmark from taking its fair share of the common defence, but it also allowed the Danes to take lead on several occasions.

The strong Baltic policy initiated by Denmark as early as in 1990 is a clear example of it. When the Danish government invited Baltic representatives to organize meetings in Copenhagen before the formal independence of their states, it was somehow an implementation of the European will that the EU itself did not afford. Denmark, with Germany, also took the initiative of launching the Council of Baltic Sea States with the three newly independent states.

Besides, Denmark signed bilateral defence agreements with Poland, with the Baltic States and even with Russia in the 90s. The development of military cooperation with Poland and the Baltic states led to increased cooperation in the field on peacekeeping missions. It was also instrumental in bringing Poland in the Danish-German corps, turning it into a Polish-Danish-German corps now stationed in Poland.

Moreover, Denmark lead a proactive Balkan policy, being among the first European nations to recognize the independence of the former republics of Yugoslavia.

Deeds, not words

Since the 90s, Denmark has unhesitatingly sent troops each time its commitment required it under the UN or NATO. Danish soldiers were among the very first to deploy in Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Each time, they sent more troops proportionally than any other contributing nation. Danish contingents were also sent to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and to Kosovo. In 2000, Denmark took the initiative to establish the Multinational Stand-by High Readiness Brigade for United Nations Operations (SHIRBRIG), which has since deployed from Ethiopia and Eritrea to Ivory Coast. Last but not least, Danish forces have seen extensive service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

All these examples tend to show that since the 90s, as Bertel Heurlin put it, Denmark has become a producer of security rather than just a consumer (2). That is why today Denmark is a major European defence actor, capable and willing to use soft power as well as hard power, even if Marie Krarup, defence spokesperson for the Danish People’s Party, is not so optimistic. In particular, on the way back from an official journey in New-Zealand, Marie Krarup explained (3) that “There are many similarities between New Zealand and Denmark. The size of the population; the desire to save on defence so that it does not make up too large a proportion of GDP; as well as big tasks in the way of monitoring of arctic areas”. Danish Defence capabilities and missions stay a hot spot of the Danish political debates. As Nicolai Wammen, the current ministry of Defence, put it, “even though Denmark is a rather small country in size, we believe we can contribute to major change.” (4) In that perspective, reinforcing Danish military capacities on land has become an evidence as recent operations demonstrated the need for powerful mobile ground forces. This is why Denmark may turn towards European countries known for their defence industry, like France or the UK, to acquire a new generation of military equipment. Thus, Danish company Hydrema recently signed a partnership with Nexter, the French leader in land-based weapons systems. The two companies will specifically work together on programmes such as the integration of systems of APCs (armoured personal carriers), in order to support the Royal Danish Army’s M113 APC replacement programme. Today, considering the age of military equipment from the Cold War era, Denmark intends to deepen European partnership to enhance key military capabilities.

Rethinking the role of Denmark with the ESDP

The position of Denmark as a strategic player in Europe has revived the debate over the ESDP. In August 2013, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, former prime minister and leader of the opposition, proposed that a referendum on the opt-outs of EU, including defence, coincide with the 2014 European election. At the time, his proposal was not accepted by the government. However, the two largest parties in parliament, the Social Democrats and Liberals, have recently agreed that such a referendum would be held in early 2016. It is now understood by a majority of Danes that full participation in the ESDP would enable Denmark to help shape the development of the EU in a unique way.

Clearly, the « 1864 syndrome » belongs to the past...


(1) Pedersen, Klaus Carsten, Denmark and the European Security and Defence Policy, p. 41

(2) Heurlin, B., Riget, magten og militæret: dansk forsvars- og sikkerhedspolitik under Forvars-kommissionerne af 1988 og 1997 [The kingdom, the power and the military: Danish defence and security policy and the defence commissions of 1988 and 1997] (Aarhus Universitetsforlag: Århus, 2004)