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Why does Denmark have four EU ‘opt-outs’ and what do they mean?

Denmark is to vote in a June 1st referendum that could bring to an end one of its four EU ‘opt-outs’ which keep it separate from the European Union on specified sovereign areas. But what are the four ‘opt-outs’ and why do they matter?

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen sits in front of the Danish and EU flags.
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen sits in front of the Danish and EU flags. The Nordic country is to vote on an EU opt-out on June 1st. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called on Sunday for citizens to vote to overturn Denmark’s opt-out from EU defence policy in a referendum to be held on June 1st, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Denmark’s opt-out – retsforbehold in Danish – is one of four EU special arrangements negotiated by the Scandinavian country, and has seen it abstain from participation in EU military operations and from providing support or supplies to EU-led defence efforts.

READ ALSO: Denmark to hold referendum on scrapping EU defence opt-out

After the Danish public voted to reject the Maastricht Treaty in June 1992, Copenhagen obtained opt-outs in four sovereign areas: the single currency, justice and police matters, and EU citizenship along with defence, the opt-out which will be the subject of the June referendum.

The opt-outs mean, broadly, that Denmark is not obliged to follow EU laws on these areas and is also not involved in forming the laws – its ministers and officials do not participate in EU ministerial meetings in these areas.

The upcoming referendum will be the ninth to be held in the Denmark since it voted in favour of EU (then European Community) membership in 1972.

In December 2015, the Danes voted no in a referendum on the police and justice opt-out which would have strengthened the country’s cooperation with the European Union on those matters. Concerns about losing their sovereignty over immigration were a key factor in the ‘no’ vote.

Single currency

The single currency opt-out means that Denmark is not obliged to join the euro. The country has kept the krone as its currency and is also allowed to practice independent fiscal policy under the terms of the opt-out.

Although Denmark has not introduced the euro, it does participate in some areas of the single currency. For example, an agreement between the Danish central bank, Nationalbanken and the European Central Bank (ECB) means that the exchange rate of the krone follows that of the euro. When the ECB increases or cuts interest rates, Nationalbanken will do the same.

The exchange rate between the krone and the euro is also maintained at a very constant rate, echoing the relation between the krone and the Deutschmark in pre-euro times.

Meanwhile, Denmark cannot be sanctioned by the EU if its budget gives too high a deficit, unlike eurozone countries.

Danes voted no to ending this opt-out and taking on the single currency in a close referendum in 2000, in which 53.2 percent voted to keep the krone and 46.8 percent voted in favour of introducing the euro. Turnout was 87.6 percent.


The opt-out that will be in question in June’s referendum, defence, means that Denmark does not generally participate in the EU’s foreign and security policies in relation to defence, and is not involved in voting for those policies but can be involved in more general discussions of EU defence policies.

This means Denmark neither finances nor participates in any military operations conducted by the EU, and would not provide troops or equipment to EU-led missions in conflict zones.

Denmark does, however, take part in civil operations, which up to now have formed the bulk of EU military activities. The EU does not have its own army but EU member states’ military forces can work together under EU auspices.

Justice and police

This opt-out, which Danes voted to retain in a 2015 referendum (see above), means that Denmark in principle is outside of the EU cooperation on laws relating to border control, asylum, civil law, criminal law and cross-border crime. There are two important exceptions: visa rules and the Schengen area, in which Denmark participates fully.

The result of the 2015 referendum meant that Denmark chose not to replace its current blanket opt-out of EU justice rules with a model which would have allowed it to choose whether or not to participate in some areas of EU policy on a case-by-case basis – in other words, an “opt-in” model.

The justice and police opt-out means that Denmark does not participate Europol, the EU’s international policing and data resource-sharing organisation. Denmark does have some level of cooperation with Europol however, agreed following negotiations subsequent to the referendum.

EU citizenship

The final Danish opt-out, which relates to EU citizenship, does not have any practical effect.

The opt-out was adopted by Denmark to guarantee that EU membership would not eventually take the form of a national citizenship or an equivalent of this. This guarantee is now written into the EU treaty so that it applies for all member countries: EU citizenship is a supplement to national citizenship and does not replace it.

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Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don’t want to return home

The majority of Britons who live in the EU, Norway, Iceland or Switzerland and are protected under the Brexit agreement feel European and intend to remain in Europe permanently, but many have concerns about travel problems, a new survey reveals.

Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don't want to return home

The research also shows that problems exist and “travel is where most issues relating to the new status currently occur”. For instance, border officials are still stamping passports of UK citizens with residence rights under the EU UK withdrawal agreement, even though they shouldn’t.

“There is constant confusion around passport stamping. I was ‘stamped in’ to France on a short trip… but could not find anyway to be ‘stamped out’ again. I think I can only spend 90 days in other EU countries, but have no idea how anyone can check or enforce that – until someone decides to try. It’s a mess,” was one of the answers left in an open question.

“Every time I go through a Schengen border control, I need to provide both my passport and Aufenthaltstitel card [resident permit in Germany] and watch to check that they don’t stamp my passport. As I am currently travelling a lot that’s been 20-odd times this year…” another respondent said.

The survey was carried out by Professor Tanja Bueltmann, historian of migration and diaspora at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, between October and November 2022. About 1,139 UK citizens replied.

Of these, 80 per cent found acquiring their new status easy or very easy, 60.7 per cent feel their rights are secure, while 39.3 per cent have concerns about their status going forward.

Staying permanently

More than three quarters (76.6 per cent) of respondents said they plan to live permanently in the EU or the other countries of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. In fact, 65.7 per cent said that Brexit has increased the likelihood of this choice.

For some, the decision is linked to the difficulty to bring non-British family members to the UK under new, stricter immigration rules.

“My German wife and I decided we no longer wanted to live in UK post Brexit referendum. In particular, we were affected by the impact of immigration law […] We cannot now return to UK on retirement as I cannot sponsor her on my pension. We knew it was a one-way journey. Fortunately, I could revive an application for German citizenship,” was a testimony.

“My husband is a US citizen and getting him a visa for the UK was near impossible due to my low income as a freelance journalist. We realized under EU law, moving to an EU country was easier. We settled on Austria as we had both lived there before… we could speak some German, and we like the mountains,” said another respondent.

Professor Bueltmann noted that the loss of free movement rights in the EU could be a factor too in the decision of many to stay where they are.

Citizenship and representation

Among those who decided to stay, 38.2 per cent are either applying or planning to apply for a citizenship and 28.6 per cent are thinking about it.

A key finding of the research, Bueltmann said, is that the vast majority of British citizens do not feel politically represented. Some 60 per cent of respondents said they feel unrepresented and another 30 per cent not well represented.

Another issue is that less than half (47.5 per cent) trust the government of their country of residence, while a larger proportion (62 per cent) trust the European Union. Almost all (95.6 per cent) said they do not trust the UK government.

Feeling European

The survey highlights the Brexit impacts on people’s identity too. 82.6 per cent of respondents said they see themselves as European, a higher proportion than those identifying as British (68.9 per cent).

“Brexit has really left me unsure of what my identity is. I don’t feel British, and I certainly don’t identify with the mindset of a lot of British people who live there. Yet, I am not Danish either. So, I don’t really know anymore!” said one of the participants in the survey.

Professor Bueltmann said the survey “demonstrates that Brexit impacts continue to evolve: this didn’t just stop because the transition period was over or a deadline for an application had been reached. Consequently, Brexit continues to shape the lives and experiences of British citizens in the EU/EEA and Switzerland in substantial, sometimes life-altering, ways.”

Considering the results of the study, Professor Bueltmann recommends policy makers in the EU and the UK to address the issue of lack of representation, for instance creating a joint UK-EU citizens’ stakeholder forum.

The report also recommends the UK government to rebuild trust with British citizens in the EU introducing voting rights for life and changing immigration rules to allow British-European families to return more easily. 

This article was prepared in cooperation with Europe Street News.