Danish Defense Minister Claus Hjort Fredriksen says in an interview that 2014 was a sudden wake-up call for Denmark that caused the country’s national defense priorities to shift from foreign missions to Baltic Sea security.
Fredriksen, who visited Danish troops stationed at the Tapa campus with Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, says that Denmark is considering creating a special brigade that could be deployed to the Baltics in a very short time in case of a crisis.
Denmark is participating in the work of the prepositioned NATO battalion at Tapa with a bigger contingent this year. What were the considerations based on which you decided to come to Estonia, where the NATO battalion is led by the United Kingdom?
A NATO member has certain rights – to be defended. However, it also has obligations. Our obligation is to help the Baltic countries, and that is why we were very keen to contribute [to the prepositioned battalion].
Like Estonia, we have a tradition of working with the Brits – we are already cooperating in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is why it was only natural to accompany them to the Baltics. (All three countries served together during the ISAF mission in Helmand province in Southern Afghanistan under UK leadership – ed.)
How smoothly did the decision go over in your politics?
The sentiment toward the Baltic countries is very warm in Denmark, so it was only natural we would come here and show solidarity. We are demonstrating that NATO stands with the Baltics, and that Russia shouldn’t even entertain the possibility of action in the region.
We remember the history of 1989, 1990, and 1991, the Baltics’ freedom from the Soviet Union, and that our government and foreign minister at the time Uffe Ellemann-Jensen played an active role. You are in our hearts.
Have you any concerns regarding this mission to Estonia?
No. Yesterday (the day before – ed.), we visited our troops, and they are very happy with the conditions in Tapa. They spoke highly of their accommodation and said they would like to have similar conditions at home. It is a kind of challenge for us!
So, there is a concern?
Yes! (Laughs.) That is a concern.
The EU paid a lot of attention to launching PESCO last year. Denmark secured a defense policy exception for itself when it joined the union – your laws do not allow you to participate. What is your position on PESCO?
We believe it is good the EU is doing something in the field of defense. It is important for the EU not to duplicate NATO functions. These steps must be complementary. The EU has certain competencies NATO lacks. For example, reconstruction efforts [in crisis countries], development of police forces, justice systems, civil rights etc. are not part of primary NATO functions.
Our exception means we cannot participate in the military side of PESCO, while the EU is a very high priority for us in terms of research and development and industry.
You can participate in the EU defense fund, but not missions?
Is there hope Denmark could consider dropping its exception in the coming years?
No. It is a deeply rooted conviction in Denmark. The time is not right for change considering the Brexit referendum.
What are the most important things NATO should discuss at its summit in summer?
It is important for us for NATO to strengthen its presence in the Baltic Sea region and the North Atlantic. Due to threats we perceive relating to Russia’s military activity, investments, and intimidation efforts.
When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, we hoped for an era of cooperation and win-win situations everywhere in Europe. Instead we were treated to an eye-opening shock in 2014 when we saw the sudden annexation of Crimea and war in Eastern Ukraine. It altered our understanding of defense.
The Danish parliament is currently discussing strengthening our own security in the Baltic Sea region. That is our priority now.
What fields will you be concentrating on?
We are discussing the creation of a brigade of 4,000 troops that could be deployed to the Baltics in a crisis. We are investing in the missile systems of our frigates to be able to defend the airspace of the region. Also, the ability to find submarines and equipment with which to fight them.
How well is Nordic cooperation functioning in a situation where Sweden and Finland are on our side but are not members of NATO?
We should expand our cooperation, and we have in recent years. We recently decided to pursue joint radar investments and are in talks for the ability to use one another’s airspace and territorial waters without the need for complicated procedures.
The only step Sweden and Finland have not taken is participation in NATO and its political decisions. Whether they want to change that is up to them.
NATO countries promised to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024 at the 2014 Wales summit. Has Denmark complied?
We are currently discussing a 20-percent increase in defense spending. We will not reach 2 percent of GDP in 2024. However, it is included in the Wales declaration, and we are moving in that direction.
I used to be finance minister. Two percent of GDP is a difficult goal. It will become more difficult for you as your economy grows. At the same time, there are countries the GDPs of which have shrunk in the past eight to ten years, and now they suddenly come off as shining stars in the defense sky.
Denmark will always be there when we are summoned. We participate in the business end of foreign missions; it should be kept in mind we do quite a lot – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Mali etc.
“Unfortunately,” your economy is doing well?
Yes. (Laughs.) It’s like rolling the boulder of Sisyphus.