Denmark says ‘Nej’ to more EU

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The front page of Danish tabloid, Ekstra Bladet

The Danes have done it before and now they’ve done it again. Just when Brussels was counting on Denmark to vote ‘yes’ in an EU referendum, the country has said ‘no’. Or as one tabloid headline put it rather delicately this morning: “Løkke fik f***-fingeren”, which loosely translates as Denmark gave their prime minister the finger.

So what was at stake here? Well a cross-party group of politicians, lead by Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, was hoping to persuade Danes to opt-in to EU Justice and Home Affairs rules. These included becoming an official member of the European police service, Europol, the law enforcement body that tackles crime and terrorism. (As you can read here in my previous blog, the UK signed up to some of these rules last December.)

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Leader of the Danish People’s Party (DF) Kristian Thulesen Dahl

But the no campaign, led by the Eurosceptic Danish People’s Party (DF), turned the referendum into one about trust. Who do you really believe here – the parties wanting to give away more powers to Brussels, or those of us who want to keep our sovereignty in Denmark? To Brits, it sounds pretty familiar doesn’t it? Add to the mix, the refugee crisis plus mass confusion about what Danes were really being asked to vote about, and you get this result – 53.1% ‘Nej’ and 46.9% ‘Ja’.

So what happens now? Well to be honest, no-one seems quite sure. Fast forward a couple of years and if David Cameron loses the EU referendum in the UK he’ll surely resign. But that doesn’t seem to be the precedent here in Denmark. Lars Løkke Rasmussen may only preside over a right-of-centre minority government, but he had support on both the left and right.

And what about Denmark’s membership of Europol? The Danish People’s Party had always argued that the country could negotiate a separate agreement to stay in, but no-one is sure whether that will be possible. Prime Minister, Rasmussen, is due to meet EU ministers next week to try to strike a deal. So it looks like more talking and compromise lies ahead.

Ahead of the Brexit referendum, David Cameron and co must be feeling a little hotter under the collar today. Already the British Eurosceptic UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, has told Danish media “hopefully our British counterparts will suffer the same fate”.  Afterall if the Danes can do it, what’s to stop the Brits from being next?

Danish Referendum: Why the UK should be watching

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I originally wrote this opinion piece for the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, which they translated into Danish (you can read the Danish version here.)

‘More EU? No Thanks!’ shout the posters at me as I walk along the street. As a Briton, I’m quite used to this kind of anti-EU rhetoric. But this isn’t London – it’s Copenhagen.

While the battle over Thursday’s referendum intensifies, few outside Denmark will have any idea it’s even happening. After all, does anyone really care if Danes opt in or stay out of the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs rules? Even a large proportion of Danes themselves seem unsure what the referendum is really about, with around a quarter yet to decide whether they’ll vote yes or no.

But there’s one European country that should be watching this with interest and that’s the United Kingdom. Within the next two years, the UK will hold its own referendum. This won’t simply be about European policing or legal matters. The question British citizens will be asked could affect the whole stability of the European Union; do voters want to remain a part of the EU or do they want to leave altogether? No wonder Prime Minister, David Cameron, is keen to prove he’s doing all he can to secure a better deal for the UK. But, as Danish Statsminister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen is discovering, it isn’t easy.

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Yes and No posters

 

Back in 2013, the government at Westminster opted out of 130 EU criminal justice and law enforcement policies. It was an attempt by Mr Cameron to repatriate powers back from Brussels in order to appease the Eurosceptic wing of his own Conservative party and the UK Independence Party. But after 18 months of fractious argument, ministers finally secured parliamentary approval to opt back into 35 measures. These were considered essential for national security and included the controversial European Arrest Warrant.

That decision has been used by Mr Rasmussen as good reason why Denmark should follow a similar path. Opt in to the Justice and Home Affairs rules, including Europol, and Danes will have more control over policing and the country’s safety, he says. With terrorism on the rise, that has to be in the nation’s best interests, claims the ‘Yes’ campaign.

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The Danish People’s Party (DF) NO campaign

But just like his British counterpart, Mr Rasmussen is facing a tough time from Eurosceptics. Dansk Folkeparti (DF) is doing a pretty good job at turning the whole debate into one about sovereignty and national identity. Vote ‘yes’ in this referendum, claims DF, and you will be opening the door to European asylum and immigration policies next. Rasmussen may have ruled this out, but given the current refugee crisis, DF is successfully using this argument as a weapon of fear. And anyway, the party claims, whatever the other side argues, of course we can stick with the current parallel agreements so there’s no need for ‘more EU’.

No-one, though, can forget that Denmark has voted ‘Nej’ before – in the referendum on joining the euro. Eurosceptics across the continent will be delighted if voters in this small nation do so again, none more so than those in the UK. They may be very different votes, but if the Danes can do it twice, what’s to stop the Brits from doing it just once? So we watch, and wait.

Bond Premiere: Spectre comes to Copenhagen

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Stars on stage before ‘Spectre’ began

Last night my husband and I were lucky enough to be at the Nordic premiere for the latest James Bond film, ‘Spectre’ which was held in Copenhagen. We were guests of the British Embassy, who put on a drinks reception at the Imperial Hotel, right next to the cinema.

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My husband and I pretending we own an Aston Martin, complete with 007 number plate!

Before we even entered the hotel lobby, we were able to grab a photo next to an Aston Martin, complete with 007 number plate.

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The British Ambassador, Vivien Life

Once inside we mingled with the great and the good including actors and politicians, while the British Ambassador, Vivien Life, reminded us Bond fans just how Great Britain is (we already know!). It was fun to finally meet the US Ambassador, Rufus Gifford, who’s yet again taking Denmark by storm with his latest TV show.

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Nick with the US Ambassador, Rufus Gifford

A short walk round the block and we were inside the cinema, watching as Scandinavian stars hit the red carpet (actually it was blue). I confess that I didn’t recognise many.

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Bond Girl, Lea Seydoux

 

But we all knew when the latest Bond Girl arrived, Lea Seydoux, who thankfully places a strong and intelligent woman. She was with the Danish actor Jesper Christensen who takes up his role as Mr White in the film. And there was plenty of drink and entertainment.

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Pretending we are stars!

It was, though, the movie that we’d all come to see and after the audience was introduced to the stars on stage, we sat back and watched. Right from the start the film is gripping with stunning cinematography. I’m still not sure whether it’s better than ‘Skyfall’, but if you like action-packed Bond films, you can’t miss ‘Spectre’. It was a night I won’t forget.

Denmark: Why are we shocked that a lion is dissected in public?

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Being interviewed on Danish TV

This morning I was a guest on Danish TV News, TV2, where I was asked to discuss why Britons are so shocked that a Danish zoo is dissecting a dead lion. My live studio interview ran alongside pictures of a previous dissection – leaving nothing to the imagination. You can watch it here, but please be warned that there is graphic content. (No broadcaster in the UK could ever use images like this before the 9pm watershed.)

The nine-month-old, along with two others, was culled back in February because Odense Zoo had too many of the animals. Today just one – a male – was taken out of the freezer and, as I write, is being cut up in front of huge crowds, including children.

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TV2 footage of the dead lion before the dissection began

Only last year, Copenhagen Zoo walked into a media frenzy when it decided to kill a healthy giraffe named Marius, dissect him in front of crowds and then feed him to the lions. So have these Danish zoos learnt nothing? Well yes because this time round, Odense Zoo decided not to publicise the cub’s death at the time, and not to give him a name.

But zoologists and most Danes in general are adamant that dissections are important – they say they are for educational purposes and not entertainment. They’ve done it before and they’ll do it again.

Which goes to show how culturally different Danes are to Brits (as well as Americans and other nationalities). There is no way on earth that a British zoo would or could do this in public. Let’s not kid ourselves – hundreds of ‘big’ animals in zoos across Europe are culled every year for many reasons, including having the wrong gene pool. And whatever we may think, it happens in the UK too – but in secret. Remember the storm that followed after it was revealed by the Daily Mail that Longleat Safari Park had put down six lions, including four cubs, because there were simply too many? I am, though, still shocked that killing ‘healthy’ zoo animals needs to happens at all – in the US they use contraception.

I certainly wouldn’t allow my five-year-old son to watch a dissection, even if he wanted to. That prompted the TV presenter to ask me if I was playing into the ‘Disneyfication’ of animals? Perhaps I am. But even though I know that children of all ages regularly visit abattoirs and watch animal dissections here in Denmark, it just doesn’t sit well with me. Does that make me, a meat-eater, a hypocrite? Probably.

Royal Affair: Danish Queen welcomes Mandela’s daughter

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Members of the Guard Hussar Regiment Mounted Squadron

This morning at Fredensborg Slot, five new ambassadors to Denmark were officially welcomed by Her Majesty the Queen, Margrethe II.  Among them was South Africa’s Zindzi Mandela, the daughter of Nelson and Winnie, who arrived in Denmark in the summer.

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Zindzi Mandela, South Africa’s Ambassador to Denmark

Each ambassador was driven by horse-drawn carriage from Fredensborg station to the palace where they were received by HM the Queen.  Members of the Guard Hussar Regiment Mounted Squadron escorted the dignitaries on their short journey and it looked spectacular.  I was particularly pleased to see that women made up the majority of the squadron.

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A horse-drawn carriage leaves Fredensborg Slot

Despite the pomp and circumstance, this was a very Danish affair.  Few Danes gathered to watch this tradition – it was mostly tourists.  But we were able to get up very close to the procession, with no barriers in place.

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The procession accompanying Zindzi Mandela

I can’t tell you what was discussed inside the palace, but from each ambassador’s smiling face as he/she left, it was clearly a happy experience.  The Danes love their monarch and I expect these ambassadors were equally impressed.

Copenhagen: Are Refugees Welcome?

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Crowds gather outside Christiansborg

I’ve just got back from a ‘refugees welcome’ rally held outside the Danish Parliament, Christiansborg, in Copenhagen. The police tweeted that around 30,000 turned out and it certainly felt packed.

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Police estimate 30,000 gathered

It’s been a strange week for Denmark. Most outside this country of just over 5.5 million, think it’s a liberal, welcoming state. At times the reality is markedly different. Anti-immigration adverts placed by the Danish government in Lebanese newspapers and around Danish asylum centres on Monday, didn’t help. These warned people that benefits for new asylum seekers had just been slashed in half and that family reunification was not guaranteed. They’re already making it increasingly difficult to get citizenship here.

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Reporting for Al Jazeera English on Wednesday night

There was also the chaos on Wednesday night when train lines between Germany and Denmark were suspended in an attempt to try to stem the tide of refugees. Then there’s been the confusion over whether Denmark was registering asylum seekers here or allowing them to head straight for Sweden – something the Swedish authorities have been less than happy about. The truth is, refugees know they’re not welcome here and are so desperate to get over the bridge, they’ve been attempting to walk.

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Refugees Welcome banner

I’ve already blogged about how badly the Danish government dealt with this unfolding crisis last week. Communication began to improve a little this week. But it took a British official here to tell me that actually the Danish government has pledged millions more in funds to the UNHCR to help deal with the crisis. Politics is at play here. Venstre (the Liberals) has only managed to form a minority government, and is kept in power by the anti-immigration Danske Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party). Furthermore, Denmark is not part of the EU’s justice rules, which includes asylum, so does not have to agree to any quota on refugee numbers. No wonder ministers have struggled to deal with this crisis.

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Crowds listen to pro refugees speakers

It’s clear many Danes don’t take the same stand as their government. A number have been arrested for trying to drive asylum seekers into Sweden. Many have been donating food and clothes as well as volunteering to help those in need. And today, thousands showed the world what they really think – Refugees are Welcome in Denmark. It’s just their government doesn’t appear to be listening.

Denmark: No easy answer to the refugee crisis

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Photo: UNHCR – O. Laban-Mattel

An equal society, a happy nation, the least corrupt country in the world. Denmark has a lot going for it, particularly when it comes to soft power. But just how welcoming is it to foreigners?

Well, I had a simple question I wanted answered: What is Denmark’s policy on Syrian refugees? Given that its neighbours, Germany and Sweden, are currently taking in hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, it seemed a pretty obvious question to ask.

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UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency

What’s more, the Danish government has just announced its nomination for UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It wants former prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt to take on this prestigious role, even though it was the UNHCR that criticised her when she was in power. Surely then ministers would have something to say about the current refugee crisis? Apparently not. Not even David Cameron’s change of heart appears to have galvanised the Danish government into issuing a response.

As a former Westminster lobby correspondent I am used to politicians and officials trying to avoid questions. But when both the Danish prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry tell me refugee policy is not their responsibility, you do begin to wonder. Worse still, I was told to contact a ministry that was scrapped four years ago. When I did get hold of someone at the Ministry for Immigration, Integration and Housing it was left to an extremely nice student assistant (the Danish equivalent of a paid intern) to try to help me. I felt like I was in an episode of ‘Yes Minister’ or ‘The Thick of It’. Someone did have a chat with me in the end – but I’m not allowed to name that person or even disclose which ministry he/she is from.

Danmarks statsminister Lars Løkke Rasmussen på pressmöte vid Nordiska rådets session i Stockholm 2009

Denmark’s Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen

I suppose you have to understand the background to current Danish politics. In June, the left-of-centre coalition lost the election, replaced by a minority government led by Lars Løkke Rasmussen. His liberal party, Venstre, is propped up by The Danish People’s Party (DF), which campaigns against immigration and open borders. Like Cameron, Rasmussen has made it clear that he wants to cut immigration. He’s already significantly cut asylum seeker benefits and announced plans to make it even harder to pass a Danish citizenship test.

In 2014, more than seven thousand Syrians sought asylum in Denmark, with most being granted refugee status. I’m told by one government official that the figure, combined with those deemed ‘stateless’, accounts for the second highest number per capita in the EU. Up until the end of July this year, more than two thousand Syrians had arrived here. The feeling in government is that this country of five million has already done its bit. No surprise, then, that there is no promise of extra help to deal with the current refugee crisis.

There’s also another complication for the Danish prime minister. In December, Danes will vote in a referendum on whether it’s time to opt in to EU justice rules. Rasmussen believes this will help the country tackle crime. So if he decides to allow more Syrian refugees into Denmark, he will have to stress that it’s on a voluntary basis only, otherwise it could be used against him in campaigning.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that I struggled to get a straight answer to my question. But with Germany on one side and Sweden on the other, how much longer can the Danish PM simply hope this crisis will just go away?

I originally wrote this blog for The Huffington Post UK on Friday 4th September 2015.