Meret, Susi. (2023). “The impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on Right-Wing Populism in Europe. The case of Denmark.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0016
At the referendum held in Denmark on June 1st, 2022 (Indenrigsministeriet, 2022), two-thirds of the electorate (66.9 %) voted for the removal of the Danish EU opt-out on Common Security and Defense Policy. This result was noteworthy, and it must be understood within the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and in the light of the situation of instability and insecurity sparked by an international crisis, that added up to the effects of the global health crisis. The populist right-wing parties in parliament were against the removal, arguing Denmark would renounce decisional power on key military and security areas. Instead, these parties advocate for the strengthening of the military within the NATO-alliance, starkly opposing further development at EU level. The impact of the Russia-Ukrainian war opens new opportunities for the populist right, whose electoral support has been waning over the past years. The newly established party, The Denmark Democrats can gain from the situation to strengthen and consolidate their position. The New Right and the crisis ridden Danish People’s Party can exploit the situation to gain voters’ support, playing on feelings of insecurity and international crisis.
Keywords: right-wing populism; opt-outs; Danish People’s Party; foreign policy; NATO.
By Susi Meret* (Aalborg University)
Denmark’s interventionist agenda
The Danish public opinion has been traditionally reluctant to concede on the Danish four opt-outs that were adopted in 1993. The opt-out regarding the defence also epitomizes a deep-seated and symbolically crucial matter, interpreted as a bulwark against yet more power to the EU, particularly on matters considered sovereign domain of the nation state. Already in the 1990s, reluctancy towards “more EU” was capitalized by the populist right, which rivalled with the Eurosceptic far-left and with single-issue movements against further EU integration. The populist right, and particularly The Danish People’s Party claims that “more EU” infers “less Denmark”, leading to more bureaucracy and the loss of Danish national sovereignty. This frame was reactivated also in relation to the 2022 referendum triggered by the developments in Ukraine.
At the 2022 elections, defence, usually a peripheral issue in the electoral agenda, was covered in 11% of the media reports. The figure was only 1 %. at the previous elections (Kosiara-Pedersen 2023). The NATO alliance is generally viewed as a necessary and sufficient military deterrent. This opinion emerges quite manifestly also from recent public opinion surveys (Andersen et al. 2022), showing high levels of trust for the NATO alliance among the Danes. The trust in the NATO alliance is today higher than it has been and significantly higher than people’s trust in the EU, but also in the Danish government. In terms of trust, the NATO comes just after the judicial system and the police forces. Interestingly, this is the case also across party differences, which have become less polarized on this matter, showing a change in the attitudes of the Far Left (e.g., the Unity List, and the Socialist People’s Party). The Russian invasion has decreased the opposition towards higher public spending in the military, and in rearmament, both seen as an inevitable consequence of the armed conflict. Gender – rather than party vote, does in fact mark a more significant difference. Women are much less supportive than men towards rearmament and more prone to consider the use diplomatic ways as a better means to resolving the conflict.
Denmark’s engagement on the Ukrainian side is almost unconditional (Henley 2022). Same goes for the support to the sanctions implemented against Russia by the EU, and for helping of Ukraine with weapons and military training. There is limited concern towards the recent plans of the German neighbour to rearm, which would otherwise have historical reason to occur. It is important to underline that this interventionist turn is no self-evident in a context like Denmark. Denmark has specific interest in maintaining peaceful relations with Russia. For one, the area of the Artic cooperation has in the past decade become more and more strategic; this would advise to keep military hostilities and diplomatic tensions at a minimum. It also shows that Denmark is not particularly influenced by the “little-country mentality”, which would advocate for neutrality, or at least for a less interventionist position.
At the same time – and contrary to other EU countries, Denmark does not depend on Russian gas and import market (although the Nord Stream 1 pipeline also runs through Danish waters), neither is Denmark particularly affected by close geographical proximity to Russia as it is the case of Finland, Sweden and Norway. Historically the country has entertained relatively good and peaceful diplomatic relations with its Eastern neighbour. Also, in spite of the fact that Russians had in 1945 occupied (after the Nazis) the Danish Island of Bornholm, where they stayed until 1946, their settlement creating growing alarm. In the post-war era, Denmark was for many years a frontline NATO state in the Nordic region.
Denmark’s foreign and security policy towards Russia became more activist (Mouritzen, 2022) after the Cold War, for instance, in supporting the NATO membership for the Baltic countries, with the purpose of securitizing the Eastern borders of Europe and also to build a stronger bulwark against future potential Russian aggressions. This background frame is essential to help explain today’s Danish unwavering pro-Ukraine support and the country’s backup to the NATO alliance and the sanctions. What in reality might set a threshold to the Danes’ interventionism and strong support to Ukraine, eventually also rekindling the electoral appeal for the populist Right, are two major and growing concerns: on the one side, the possibility that the conflict might degenerate into an atomic war; on the other side, the fear that an increase in energy prices (and in the overall inflation) might develop into yet another serious economic and financial crisis.
Fear about economic insecurity has been exacerbated since the outburst of the Russia/Ukraine conflict. Danes are generally rather optimistic about the future of their own and of the country’s economy. Yet the concern about how the economic situation will look in the near future is today greater than it was in the aftermath of the financial crisis more than a decade ago. Particularly high among the population aged 30-50, which are also the cohorts more exposed to the effects of the inflation, and in particular of the higher mortgage rents. Economic uncertainty adds up to an increase in socioeconomic inequality in the country and to grievances about income and decreasing welfare provisions. These perceptions could result into stronger support for populist right-wing parties and politics, which in the past years has been dwindling. Yet this would unlikely impact on the support for Ukraine and on the positions towards Russia, but rather on attitudes towards the EU, cooperation politics on migration policy and economy.
New opportunities for a split populist right-wing in Denmark
EU has over the years adopted several important measures and initiatives to defend common democratic principles and values. Denmark has actively worked to support this value agenda. Things stand a little differently on issues concerning EU military cooperation and foreign policy. The fact that the 2022 referendum abolished a 30-year-old opt-out clause is remarkable. Yet the Eurosceptic populist Right strongly and consequently opposes what is seen as the effort to hand more power and sovereignty over to the EU. Both the Danish People’s Party and the New Right have rallied against “more EU,” and against the revoking of the opt-out. Instead, the two parties plea for stronger support to the NATO-alliance as the way to guarantee the country military security.
This responds to Denmark’s strengthening the Atlantic dimension in Danish military and foreign policy. In 2018 and again in 2019, the Danish government was quick to approve the expansion of defence spending to meet the 2 %. of the GDP prompted by the American pressure to ensure the alliance’s military readiness. The line is maintained by the incumbent Danish bipartisan government coalition formed after the 2022 November elections, which includes the Social Democrats, the Liberal Party (Venstre) and the newly formed The Moderates. The new government certainly pursues an interventionist approach and after taking office it prompted all the parties in the opposition to give their support to their proposal of fast-tracking the increase in public spending for defence, aiming at anticipating the goals from 2033 to 2030. Social Democrat PM Mette Frederiksen (Statsministeriet 2023) explained in her New Year’s speech to the nation: "Europe must stay stronger. And Denmark must pay more to NATO. […] This entails we all need to contribute some more. Thus, the government suggests we scrap a public holiday. I feel not everybody agrees with this, but hand on heart, and we cannot possibly overcome a war in Europe, the climate crisis and our domestic challenges, if each and every one, does not contribute some more."
This move happened to be very unpopular. It triggered strong criticism from the trade unions, from the parties at the opposition and from different categories of workers. Pivotal is considered the way the government makes use of the of the war frame to hasten the scraping of a public holiday. This without consulting the other parties and the labour market parts, as it is tradition for in the country. What the opposition and the labour market parts question is in fact whether the additional spending on defence, explained as the need to sacrifice a little to meet the costs of the war and of rearmament cannot be financed through other measures than those currently on the agenda.
These recent developments have contributed to amplify a set of dilemmas in the country, but in particular among the populist right-wing parties, which are the most vocal supporters of the NATO-alliance and have always pledged for higher public spending in the military and defense. Their dilemma reverts on how to take advantage from the political opportunities opened by the conflict and to achieve these goals, without charging their electorate with additional costs.
The country’s right-wing populism topography
In an update posted on his Facebook profile on February 23, 2022, Morten Messerschmidt, the leader of the Danish People’s Party (DF) since the start of 2022, articulated the party position on the Russia-Ukraine war using these words: “Russia is threatening Europe’s freedom – NATO is the answer”. He further elaborated, arguing that: "If someone ever doubted where the Danish People’s Party stands on Russia and on Putin, let me put it boldly here: We stand with the Western defence NATO-alliance to protect and secure the Western freedom values and ideals [including] in all countries’ right to go their own way and make their alliances," (Messerschmidt, 2022).
For Messerschmidt and the Danish People’s Party only a “strong NATO alliance with the backup of the US” can provide “a convincing answer to the Russian aggression”. The party is against any attempt to create an independent EU defence, with own structure of command. This would only contribute “to strengthen the US isolationist politics and could be fatal for the EU” (Dansk Folkeparti, 2022). Forsøg på at skabe et europæisk forsvar med egen kommandostruktur vil uundgåeligt styrke isolationistiske kræfter i USA, hvilket kan blive skæbnesvangert for Europa. Dette er vi kommet et skridt nærmere med afskaffelsen af forsvarsforbeholdet i kølvandet på krigen i Ukraine
Conditions for the financing of the defence should be responsible and take place without deficit on the yearly state budget. This entails that the Danish military participation should only serve Denmark’s interest and security and should not act as “the world’s police officer” (Dansk Folkeparti, 2022). Intervention in other countries and regions deemed as strategically nonrelevant should be avoided. The party was, for instance, against the presence of Danish soldiers in Mali joining European special forces.
The party’s position on foreign and security policy above is not new. In the early 2000s, the party working program read (Dansk Folkeparti Arbejdsprogram, 2001): “Denmark should as a sovereign and free nation be part of a strong NATO-alliance”, whereas the party declared itself being “against any EU involvement in the military and defence”, contending this field must only be managed at national level (arguing thus for an increase in military and defence spending), and internationally coordinated by the NATO alliance. Morten Messerschmidt reiterated the party standing against Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, thus responding to the twofold purpose of distancing from politically harmful pro-Russian views within its party, and among his European allies, with whom the Danish People’s Party had tried to forge a stronger far-right alliance under the 2019 European Parliament elections. Uncomfortable, albeit restricted, are the pro-Russian and pro-Putin standpoints publicly uttered by outstanding party MPs, such as by Søren Espersen, and Marie Krarup. The latter was certainly the most problematic case the party had to deal with, since she consistently stood on her pro-Russian positions (Kristensen, 2022), also after the invasion and despite going against the party line. Krarup eventually exited the party at the end of February 2022, also because of her disapproval of the new party leadership.
The Danish People’s Party internal disputes had begun time before the conflict in Ukraine, triggered by the remarkable drop in voters’ support at the 2019 and again at 2021 elections. These electoral losses provoked a mounting dissatisfaction with Kristan Thulesen Dahl’s leadership, ending with his resignation in 2021. The electorate blamed him for not having taken government responsibilities after the party triumph at the 2015 elections (Meret, 2021). In this sense, the Russia-Ukraine conflict posed just another challenging issue on the agenda to the already internally troubled and split Danish People’s Party. Besides, the relations with some of the parties in the Identity and Democracy European Parliament group, holding ambiguous positions with Putin and Russia (e.g., Lega, the Front National and the Alternative for Germany) contributed to aggravate the picture. From the outside, the Danish People’s Party has since 2019 been in competition with the New Right (Nye Borgerlige, NB) which coopted stricter positions on asylum and immigration and by the turn towards the right of the Social Democrats on immigration (Meret, 2020).
The Danish People’s Party leadership shift, with Morten Messerschmidt taking the lead amid internal party disagreement and criticism, took place only a month before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Danish People’s Party activated a “reputational shield” to respond to the new crisis, drawing from the party long-standing support to the NATO-alliance and by its opposition to the EU military and defence cooperation. A third leg on foreign policy is constituted by the party emphasis on the value approach, centered upon the importance to preserve liberal democratic values, principles of sovereignty and Europe’s Christian heritage as strategic configurations to attack Putin’s regime and to regain the voters’ support. The party is also relatively more open towards the need to take in war refugees from Ukraine, bluntly upholding that besides being Ukraine a geographically near region, “there is clearly a huge difference if it is Christian Ukrainians who come into Denmark, rather than say [refugees] from Somalia or all other possible good people from a Muslim country.” (Volsing 2022)
The NB is another populist right-wing party at the political opposition in Denmark, having a shorter life history (it was formed in 2015) than the Danish People’s Party. Apart from the strongly neoliberal agenda, the New Right subscribes to similar (yet not the same) positions as the Danish People’s Party on other issues. On the Russia-Ukraine war, NB holds perhaps an even tougher tone in terms of a stronger interventionist conviction and an anti-European policy that still urges Denmark’s exit from the EU. In a blog published on the party website on the day of the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, today former party leader Pernille Vermund criticized both centre-left and centre-right governments for having “neglected Danish military and defence” over the years, thus preventing the country from meeting the 2% of GDP target pledged to the NATO-alliance and, endangering Denmark’s national security and ability to react. The New Right’s opinion about Russia is straightforward: Russia has developed into a dictatorship with expansionist ambitions that threatens the Baltic and the Artic regions, and ultimately Denmark. Only option for the country is to strengthen its position within the NATO-alliance.
The newly launched party the Denmark Democrats (DD), former in June 2022 by integration minister Inger Støjberg does not yet have a clear program on matters of foreign policy, military and defence are still unwritten (Krog, 2022). Støjberg is a former Liberal MP, known as a hardliner on immigration and integration politics, who was impeached and later convicted for unlawfully ordering the separation of young asylum-seeking spouses. Her party, the Denmark Democrats gained a solid 8 %. at the 2022 elections and it is believed to be the spare for the voters who are discontent and frustrated with the status quo, amongst them also several former Danish People’s Party supporters and former MPs. Støjberg has also expressed her preference for helping Christian Ukrainian rather than Muslim refugees.
Voting intentions for right-wing populist parties in Denmark (2022)
Source: Compiled by the author based on data from Voxmeter (https://voxmeter.dk/meningsmalinger/)
Despite being among the most interventionist parties, also the Danish People’s Party, the New Right and the Denmark Democrats oppose the government’s recent proposal to economically fund the increase in military spending by removing the Great Prayers’ Day (Storbededag) from the Danes’ holiday calendar. The decision is sensitive, and while most parties in the opposition do agree with the purpose (more money to the military), the means to achieve have become contentious. For instance, the approval has been made as a condition to access the future financial negotiation for the military and the defence. Furthermore, the proposal comes just before the 2024 labour market collective agreement negotiations, making it particularly ostracized among trade unions and workers who see charges primarily taken by the working class. But the abolition of one of the Christian public holidays directly speaks to the populist right wing parties, which flagships the lack of interest for Denmark’s Christian legacies and cultural heritage. This allows to take on board right-wing populist fears about a threatened nation from within (by a detached political elite and a growing Muslim problem) and outside (by EU integration, Russian expansionist politics and an increasingly insecure world governance). As Morten Messerschmidt articulated on his Twitter account (Messerschmidt [@Messerschmidt] December 14, 2022): "To remove the Great Prayers’ Day is pure madness. We ought not change our traditions and holidays in the name of rationalism. And yes, it is a holy-day (!) which substituted all former catholic holidays. Fingers away from the Danish traditions."
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered long term consequences on Danish domestic politics by encouraging more interventionist positions, and by creating the conditions for the future increase of the public spending and the reform of the Danish military. This however at the cost of welfare standards and levels of trust. The conflict contributed strengthening the country support in the NATO-alliance, drawing Denmark even closer to the US and its allies. Denmark is member of both NATO and the EU, yet on military and defence matters it has always felt much closer and loyal to the first. The result of the 2022 referendum preludes to some changes on this pattern, likely in the longer-term span. But the war in Ukraine speaks also to the right-wing populist voters, to their growing economic and societal concerns and grievances. Primarily it can represent the return to narrower understandings of the nation state, of safety and to the call to bring forces together to defend the country borders, security and welfare. It also contributes to creating new threats, sparking to Russophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments, legitimated by the fear of what the future might bring in terms of economic, societal and cultural crises. It is issues that the populist right-wing knows already how to mobilize and capitalize upon. In this sense the European answer will be fundamental to prevent the return of nationalist and protectionist movements.
(*) Susi Meret is associate professor at the Department of Politics and Society in the University of Aalborg, Denmark. Her main research interest is with populist radical right-wing parties in Europe, populism, political extremisms and civil society reactions. She has conducted studies on right-wing populism in Denmark (and beyond), also considering party leadership charisma, the mainstream parties’ counter-strategies, the role of Islam and, more broadly, the civil society responses to growing anti-immigration and ethno-nationalism. For more info: https://vbn.aau.dk/en/persons/100658/publications/
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