September 2, 2016

Security and Brexit in Denmark, Norway and Sweden

A European flag is flown in front of The Elizabeth Tower which houses the "Big Ben" bell in the Palace of Westminster, as thousands of protesters gather in Parliament Square as they take part in a March for Europe, through the centre of London on July 2, 2016, to protest against Britain's vote to leave the EU, which has plunged the government into political turmoil and left the country deeply polarised.
A European flag is flown in front of The Elizabeth Tower which houses the "Big Ben" bell in the Palace of Westminster, as thousands of protesters gather in Parliament Square as they take part in a March for Europe, through the centre of London on July 2, 2016, to protest against Britain's vote to leave the EU, which has plunged the government into political turmoil and left the country deeply polarised.

EU-scepticism, immigration and NATO-membership. After the British vote to leave the European Union, all European countries are debating the possible effects of Brexit to themselves and to the union as a whole. One of the themes debated is security. In Sweden, reporting on security implications of Brexit is largely ignored by the media, but the right-wing parties are using Brexit as an argument for NATO-membership. In Denmark, the debate is greater and dominated by domestic issues related to immigration. In Norway, the debate is limited and revolves around EFTA and EEA-arrangements.

Security Concerns

In Sweden, security issues related to Brexit are not discussed widely. The articles which do focus on it can be divided into two different groups, reflecting two kinds of analyses of possible effects for Nordic-Baltic security. The first group provides the best reflection of the public debate. It is the belief that Brexit will create some insecurity in the Nordic-Baltic region, but not lead to major changes in Swedish defence and security policy or security alliances. This may be because the terms and consequences of Brexit are still unknown. Malena Britz, researcher at the Swedish Defence University, is an exception of this. She argues that the likely outcome of Brexit is that issues regarding defence and security politics will be moved from the EU to NATO, which will increase the transatlantic security project while weakening the European one. That might have consequences for Sweden since it is not a member of NATO. Why is Brexit not perceived as a greater threat to Nordic-Baltic security? Most articles refer to the “Hultqvist Doctrine” (deepened defence cooperation with neighbouring states) and the existing solidarity clause in the TFEU.

The second group is a marginal one, mainly consisting of wishful thinkers. They argue that since the United Kingdom is the most powerful actor in terms of defence in the EU, the union’s total capabilities will be reduced in the event of a Brexit. This will lead to a strengthening of NATO. Sweden will then feel insecure and eventually join NATO. Jan Hallberg and Ulrika Mörth have a more balanced view, but also reach the conclusion that in the long run, given a continued Russian aggressive foreign and security politics, the Swedish government will have to apply for NATO-membership if they take security seriously. It should be remembered that this is not a mainstream view.

EU-scepticism is present to a much greater extent in Denmark, something reflected in the opt-outs of the union it already has: most importantly from the Common Security and Defence Policy. There seems to be a ‘wait-and-see’-mentality which is completely absent from the Swedish debate. Politicians and the public are keeping their options open to see if Brexit leads to possibilities for England to stay integrated in the union without the free movement clause, which is the main issue for the anti-EU movement in Denmark. If the UK comes out with a better deal which could work for Denmark, then many believe that there should be a referendum on Danish EU-membership. The Danish People’s Party and the Red-Green Alliance are vocal supporters of this. The other parliamentary parties are all EU-positive, but with reservations that it needs to reform.

In Denmark the security implications are widely debated and much more specific than in the Swedish media. Much of the reporting focuses on how the main player in European security is NATO and not the EU. Still, several sources note the sanctions against Russia and the Iran nuclear deal as examples of where the EU has played an important role in foreign politics which will be reduced with a Brexit. Often a pro-Western/pro-NATO rhetoric can be seen in Denmark which is almost completely absent from Swedish mainstream media.

While Brexit alone is unlikely to have any major security implications for Denmark, it certainly contributes to the tensions in domestic politics, and could in combination with other events work as a trigger for an EU-referendum. If the UK would choose to stay in the EU, however, this could potentially damage anti-EU voices in Denmark.

In Norway, not being a member of the EU but in EFTA, the EEA and NATO, the debate is low-keyed. Economic issues are discussed, but the main focus is how Norway would be affected if the UK also joined EFTA. Confusion is often expressed in regards to the British Brexit supporters who says that Brexit will result in the UK getting the same status as Norway – which the Norwegians do not see any advantage of. They have to pay to the EU and abide with the regulations of the EEA, but do not have voting rights.

Domestic Colours of the Debate

There is no potential for a Swedish EU-referendum in any foreseeable future, but in Denmark the voices critical of the EU have significant support. In Sweden, the main question for those interested in security politics is the increasingly important role of NATO for European security and how that is problematic for Sweden considering it is not a member. For Denmark the greatest question, which is definitely discussed broadly in the mainstream media and is also divisive, is the consequences for Denmark, particularly around the Danish People’s Party and if they might turn from being EU-critical to being directly anti. Because of the political culture and climate, the Danish situation should be taken seriously. They remain deeply committed to NATO and show much more signs of Western-solidarity than Sweden ever has, but the anti-immigration sentiments could in the long run have an effect on the Danish commitment to the EU and their other international engagements. Again, this is not the situation now, but could be a reason for concern further ahead. Will the Danish People’s Party remain merely critical to the EU or turn to being vocally against it? How would this impact Denmark? Could they be in government next election? How would this affect security?

For Norway, not a member of the EU, there is no such political implications to seriously talk about, but there is talk about how a United Kingdom in the EFTA would affect the current members (Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Switzerland). These countries usually operate with a single voice, but if the UK would become a member the balance of power in EFTA would change and Norway lose its dominant position. Some are speculating that the UK may not be allowed in EFTA even if it wanted for this reason.

What explains the lack of debate in Swedish media about security issues related to Brexit? Firstly, the security risks associated with Brexit for Sweden considering the already increased partnership with Great Britain under the Hultqvist-doctrine, the solidarity clause in the EU and the partnership with NATO does seem to be limited. Secondly, there is a general belief that Sweden has been (and still is) neutral and non-aligned. There is a pride associated with this false belief. The lack of priority on security has been reflected in the defence budgets over the years and in the minds of the people. Unlike the Baltic States, for example, the Swedish people have not suffered from war nor occupation in over 200 years. In the same way that Soviet occupation has formed identities and then policies in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania post-1991, to have been free for such a long time has formed policies and identity in Sweden. The last reason is that the terms of Brexit are still unclear, and that makes it difficult to analyse the possible security impacts.

Even though there is general public disinterest in the matter in Sweden, the right-wing parties and several security thinkers have connected Brexit to Swedish NATO-membership. They see it is a window of opportunity for NATO-lobbying, but since the Social Democrats are still against NATO-membership and has made that perfectly clear, it is difficult to see how a membership application would take place. Carl Bildt recently said that he believes that Sweden will join NATO within 10 years, but it is possible that he said this because he knows that his words have power to affect public opinion and put pressure on the Social Democrats, rather than him actually believing it to be the truth.

Often the pro-NATO supporters ask the seemingly good question: “Why would Sweden not join NATO?” Rather than asking the right one: “Why would Sweden join NATO?” The result is that the argumentation is not effective, with recent polls showing that 49% of the voters are negative towards membership, 33% positive and 18% indecisive. Why? The answer might be in identity, and that the arguments put forward are preaching for the already converted.

While seemingly not having any immediate security impacts on Sweden, Norway and Denmark, Brexit may have lasting impacts both for domestic and foreign politics in the long run in at least Denmark. How it will turn out will depend on what kind of deal the UK gets with the EU, and how the domestic players in the country play their cards with this deal.