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Danes Vote on Joining EU’s Defense Pact, Daunted by Russia’s War

(Bloomberg) -- Danes head to polls Wednesday to vote on joining the European Union’s defense pact as the country is pushed closer to the bloc by Russia’s war against Ukraine.

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Most polls suggest the Nordic nation, which has traditionally shunned deeper integration with the EU, is set to approve ending an opt-out that has excluded it from the bloc’s defense partnership since 1993. The referendum coincides with Russia cutting natural gas supply to Denmark on the same day.

A go-ahead would be another shift in the long-standing security arrangements in the region since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine, with Sweden and Finland seeking NATO entry after public support for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has surged in both countries.

“Putin is a threat to peace and safety in Europe, and Europe should not have any holes in its defensive wall,” Defense Minister Morten Bodskov said by phone. “Europe needs a defense where we stand shoulder to shoulder in both NATO and the EU.”

A founding member of NATO, the country of 5.8 million is the only one that doesn’t participate in EU’s defense pact out of 21 nations that belong to both blocs.

Having joined the EU along with the UK in 1973, Denmark is also outside of the euro area and the bloc’s partnerships on justice and home affairs. The reservations were adopted after Danes initially rejected the bloc’s Maastricht Treaty in 1992 amid a distrust of closer European integration on other than cross-border issues.

Denmark has twice previously held ballots to get rid of opt-outs -- on the euro and on justice -- but the changes were rejected both times even after the backers had initially dominated.

Voting in the referendum began at 8 a.m. local time and will close at 8 p.m., with exit poll results expected shortly after that and unofficial results due later in the evening.

The export arm of Russia’s Gazprom PJSC said on Tuesday it will stop natural gas shipments via pipelines to Shell Plc and Orsted A/S on June 1, affecting supplies to Germany and Denmark, after the two companies rejected Russia’s payment terms.

Likewise, Finland saw its power imports from Russia cut two days after the country’s leaders said they would back an application to join NATO and gas flows ended three days after Finland actually submitted its application.

Denmark’s ruling Social Democrats agreed with some opposition parties in March to hold the referendum. As part of that deal, Denmark will gradually increase military spending from 1.3% of gross domestic product and by 2033 reach the 2% goal that NATO has set for its members.

A recent poll by TV2 showed 65% of voters support joining the defense pact, with 35% against. The next parliamentary election is due no later than next June and this has limited the campaigning ahead of the referendum.

“The shadow of the upcoming general election has had a hampering effect on the campaigns,” Rebecca Adler-Nissen, a professor at Copenhagen University, said by phone. “Supporters of a ‘yes’ are holding back and rather warming up for a general election.”

Among the most prominent tenets of EU’s military cooperation, a program called the Permanent Structured Cooperation -- or PESCO -- covers 60 projects including training, designing new weapons systems and cyber coordination. While NATO remains the cornerstone of European collective defense, the EU is also working on new investment instruments to fund its military spending, according to a draft report seen last month by Bloomberg.

Read More: Danes Must Join EU Defense Pact to Not Lose Clout, Minister Says

Security policies are changing across the continent after a full-scale war started in Ukraine on Feb. 24. While Finland and Sweden still have to overcome Turkey’s opposition to their NATO bids, Denmark’s southern neighbor Germany has announced a historic ramp-up of defense expenditure, including a 100 billion-euro ($107 billion) military spending fund that its politicians agreed this week to enshrine in the constitution.

“NATO is focusing on its Eastern border and the U.S. will to a large extend focus on Asia, because they see China as a bigger threat than Putin,” Bodskov said. “So there is no doubt that there will be assignments that Europe will have to deal with.”

(Updates with start of voting, comment from minister.)

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