Denmark: Not so happy now

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A few thoughts after being interviewed by RTE (Irish radio, which you can listen to here) about Denmark’s decision to confiscate jewellery and cash worth more than 10,000 Danish Kroner (£1,000) from refugees. Today the Migrant Bill passed through Danish Parliament, despite international opposition. It also means that asylum seekers have to wait three years before they can ask to be reunited with family members.

The Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, has described it as the “most misunderstood bill in Denmark’s history.”  The argument goes that if unemployed Danes aren’t allowed assets before they seek benefits, why should anyone else. Interestingly, it wasn’t just those on the right who voted yes – even many centre-left Social Democrats agree this is a fair policy. And with 70% of Danes putting immigration as a top concern, there is widespread public support towards efforts to curb immigration.

Outsiders seem shocked that ‘welcoming, liberal’ Denmark can be so tough. But the reality is, they don’t care what others think. Danes say they need to protect their borders and their small country of 5.6 million people. But it’s a far cry from the ‘Happiest Country in the World’ name tag that Denmark has enjoyed for so many years.

Danish Election: Denmark turns right

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My election piece for The Huffington Post

I wrote this piece this morning for The Huffington Post and you can see it on their website here. Otherwise, it’s in full below, with some extra comments from Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s husband, Stephen Kinnock.

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In the early hours of this morning, Helle Thorning-Schmidt resigned as Danish Prime Minister and leader of the Social Democrats. Yet it was her party that won more votes than any other in yesterday’s election. The problem was that her coalition partners didn’t perform nearly as well, leaving the centre-left with fewer seats than the right.

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Helle Thorning-Schmidt on Danish TV as Danes were voting

It’s expected that Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who’s already been PM once, will become Denmark’s next leader. Over the last few months he’s had to battle criticisms over his expenses. His party, The Liberals (Venstre) had its worst election night in twenty-five years, losing around a quarter of its votes. It’s now only the third largest party in the Danish parliament. But with the support of those parties on the right, Rasmussen can form a government.

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Anti-racism posters cover the face of Lars Løkke Rasmussen

The majority of that support needs to come from the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party (DPP). It did better than anyone predicted, winning more than 21% of the vote. It’s now the second largest group in Danish politics. But it’s not going to make life easy.

I’ve just spoken to the party’s leading MEP, Morten Messerschmidt, a populist figure who won a fifth of all votes in the European elections in Denmark last year. He told me that last night was a “surprising and great result”. But he stressed that “it’s not our plan” to enter into a formal coalition with The Liberals, preferring instead to support from the side-lines. Of course anything could happen in the on-going negotiations. But at the moment it looks like the DPP will only lend its backing to Rasmussen when it feels like it. And that could make life pretty difficult for the new prime minister.

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My Huffington Post piece from earlier this week

The policies the party will of course support will centre around cuts to immigration – a popular issue in Danish politics. Rasmussen has already promised to hold emergency talks to discuss the rise in asylum seekers. The Danish People’s Party wants to go much further, including a return to border controls – even between Denmark’s neighbours Germany and Sweden. “We want to be more like the UK over our borders,” Messerschmidt tells me.

And this love affair with the UK’s right is only set to continue. All the parties in the Danish blue bloc have already pledged to support David Cameron over EU negotiations and in particular cuts to ‘benefit tourism’.

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The website of the Danish People’s Party

That doesn’t mean it will be easy for Rasmussen to keep the right bloc in order. While the Danish People’s Party is fairly critical of the EU, his own Liberal Party is supportive. The Liberal Alliance, another likely member of the new coalition, wants a smaller state while the DPP campaigned for more public spending. Just like in the Danish TV series ‘Borgen’, it will be all about deals, concessions and compromises.

The Danes themselves take their politics and democracy extremely seriously. It’s estimated that almost 86% of people who could vote in this election, did.

As for the out-going Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, there will be no shortage of job offers for her.  Meanwhile her husband, the British Labour MP, Stephen Kinnock sent me these comments this evening:

For over ten years Helle has led her party and governed her country with a huge amount of courage, compassion and competence. She fought an inspiring election campaign, and lost on the night by a whisker. Thanks to Helle’s success, whoever takes over as party leader will truly be able to hit the ground running, and I have no doubt that the social democrats will be returned to government at the next election. I am very proud of everything that Helle has achieved, and we are now greatly looking forward to some family time over the summer.

Danish TV Drama 1864 coming soon to the BBC

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Selfie with Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen

Last year I was lucky enough to go to the Danish premiere of ‘1864’ a new historical drama that was about to air in Denmark. When I say ‘premiere’ this was as far removed from a red carpet event as you can get. Think low key and relaxed – so relaxed that the film broke down several times as we watched episodes 1 and 2. Anyway, this coming weekend it airs in the UK on BBC 4.

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Some of the cast. Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Scanpix

‘1864’ is based around the nineteenth century Schleswig-Holstein war that re-wrote Danish history. It resulted in the loss of 5,000 Danish lives and more than a third of the country’s territory.  But don’t think this is just a boring old history lesson – it’s a powerful, human drama.

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Lars Mikkelsen with two young male stars

This series has some of Denmark’s biggest stars of TV and film. I did rather embarrass myself by asking Sidse Babette Knudsen, who played Prime Minister, Birgitte Nyborg, in Borgen, for a selfie. But hey, you only live once. Then there’s Lars Mikkelsen from the Killing and House of Cards, Søren Malling from both The Killing and Borgen plus many more.

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Sidse Babett Knudsen with two young female stars

You can read much more about ‘1864’ in the articles I wrote for the Danish news site ‘The Local’ including an interview with my hero Sidse. But suffice to say that despite being the most expensive Danish drama ever made, it didn’t prove very popular here in Denmark. Let’s hope the Brits like it a little more.

http://www.thelocal.dk/20141002/denmarks-new-tv-drama-will-entertain-and-educate

http://www.thelocal.dk/20141012/tv-drama-1864-fights-to-win-over-the-danes

UPDATE: I was on BBC Radio Four’s ‘Front Row’ on Wednesday evening discussing 1864. You can listen to the show here and I am five minutes from the end.

My 2km swim around ‘Borgen’

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The start of my heat in the Christiansborg Rundt 2014

There are some things that make Copenhagen a truly great city in which to live. One of them is being surrounded by water and being able to swim in it.  Once a year that includes a two kilometre race along the canals of Copenhagen.  What makes this particularly special though is that it involves swimming around the Danish Parliament, Christiansborg which is known to many as ‘Borgen’.  There aren’t many capital cities in the world where you can swim around the seat of power!

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My swimming group, just before the race started

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Swimmers in my heat, mostly from Kildeskovshallen

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Lined up and ready to go!

Yesterday I joined around 3,000 others who were also taking part in The Christiansborg Rundt.  In my heat of 25, were members of the swimming group that I joined a year ago.  We’ve managed a few sea swims this summer, but haven’t had a chance to swim in Copenhagen’s canals.  It was very different swimming around tight corners, under very long, dark bridges and among the thousands of jellyfish – yuck!

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Straight after my swim – medal in hand!

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The view from a bridge in Copenhagen

But what an experience.  Some in the group are super fast and managed it in around 30 minutes.  I swam it in 44 minutes and was really pleased.  And if I get the chance to do it again, I will.

A Year in Copenhagen

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I can’t really believe it’s been twelve months since we left London for Copenhagen. But in June last year we started our new Danish life. On the whole it’s been a fantastic adventure and I personally feel it’s been one of the best decisions we’ve made as a family. That’s not to say things have all been perfect – they certainly haven’t. But here are some of the highlights:

Family living

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Monocle magazine has yet again voted Copenhagen as the world’s most liveable city in 2014. You can read a previous blog here about why life in Denmark is not perfect, but on the whole it is a very easy city. The working hours are generally shorter than in the UK. That means we can actually see Charlie in the evenings, which wasn’t the case in London. The child care system doesn’t break us financially, which is the way it was going in the UK. Sadly for us the Danish education system didn’t work out (see my previous blog here). But Copenhagen City Council still pays for half of Charlie’s international pre-school fees which is pretty generous (one of the reasons why tax is so high here). Transport is also good, including cycling (see later). And living less than a 10 minute walk from the beach is just great.

Making new friends

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I miss my family and friends but I have met some wonderful people here in Copenhagen from all over the world. Some of them have befriended me through my swimming class, some through Charlie’s kindergartens and others via friends.

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Inga and her granddaughter Emma with Charlie and me

We’ve also been lucky enough to meet a distant relative, Inga Peetz, who has been so kind to us – even offering us her home to live in when we first arrived. I’ve also been pretty pro-active at befriending people in the various playgrounds dotted around this city. When you move abroad you have to be brave and talk to people – I’m quite good at talking!

Learning how to ride a bike again

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Copenhagen is a cycling city and I can’t tell you how great it is being able to bike safely – whether it’s taking Charlie to pre-school or cycling to work or swimming lessons. I blogged last August about learning to ride a bike again which you can read here. You’ll be pleased to hear I’ve got a little faster.

Triathlon training
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Which leads me on to exercise. What’s happened to me? I’ve never been one for being particularly active, but not only have I started cycling, I’ve also found myself running.

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With our medals – Charlie photo bombing the photo!

And having rekindled my love of swimming, this month I completed my first mini-triathlon (read all about it here!) My next aim is to take part in a 2 km swim around Copenhagen, along with my ex-pat swimming group, starting from ‘Borgen’, the Danish Parliament.

Learning to freelance

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Reporting from Eurovision for Al Jazeera English

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Working at Saxo TV with former ITN employees Angus Walker and Owen Thomas

Until I moved here, I’d worked for ITV News for fourteen years. Some of that was in regional news and the final few years were for national ITN, based in the House of Commons in Westminster. It was obviously a big deal walking away from a prestigious job. But since August I have been a freelance reporter for Al Jazeera English TV; I’ve been reporting for the business channel Saxo TV (with some former ITN employees – small world!); written articles including one for a UK magazine on Danish politics in which I found myself interviewing PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt; interviewed the Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier; and to top it all I’ve found myself editing the newsletter for LINK, a women’s expat group based here.

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Interviewing Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt

Learning Danish

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A quiet drink after passing our Danish exam

From my previous blogs, you’ll see that I’ve struggled with learning Danish. I’m no pro but I was so pleased to pass my Module One exam. And at least I can ask for bread in Danish, even if the reply is always in English.
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So would I recommend this adventure to anyone else?  The first few months were tough but one year on, the answer is undoubtedly yes.

Real Borgen in ‘Total Politics’

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YOU CAN NOW READ THIS ARTICLE IN FULL, BUT WITH FEWER PICTURES, ON THE ‘TOTAL POLITICS’ WEBSITE – http://www.totalpolitics.com/articles/444402/the-real-borgen.thtml

I can honestly tell you that from what I’ve seen, life in real Borgen is often more exciting than the TV version.  As I write this, the Danish government seems to be in very serious trouble.   The leader of the Socialistisk Folkeparti (SF), one of the parties that makes up the coalition, has just walked out of government.  Several other ministers have also quit.  It’s over plans to partially sell state-owned Dong energy to Goldman Sachs.  Many are asking whether the government can even last.

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Because Danish politics really is exciting, I’ve written an article about it in February’s edition of ‘Total Politics’ magazine.  I’ve interviewed some of the top names, including: the Deputy Prime Minister and Economics Minister, Margrethe Vestager; the former diplomat, author and editor-in-chief of the newspaper Politiken, Bo Lidegaard; and the British Ambassador to Denmark, Vivien Life.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

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Real Danish Political Drama!

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Political intrigue in Copenhagen’s City Hall

The results are almost in and I confess that I’ve been finding these Danish local elections rather exciting.  OK, they’re not quite Borgen and certainly not The Killing.  But over at Copenhagen’s City Hall there is a real-life political drama going on over who controls what.

With so many parties, Danish politics is complicated.  But that’s what makes it so interesting.  Coalition means deals and it looks like everyone’s at it.  Copenhagen’s Mayor Frank Jensen, from the Social Democrats, keeps his top seat, but only thanks to support from two other parties (Enhedslisten and Socialistisk Folkeparti).

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The election may be over, but there’s still politics to play for

And it doesn’t stop there.  There are another SIX mayors to choose, each with his/her own fiefdom.  Parties have formed blocs as they fight to have a seat around the mayoral table.  According to the Copenhagen Post, the sticking points have been over who gets the Traffic and Environment Administration (TEA) and who gets the Integration and Employment Administration (IEA).

The centrist party Radikale was apparently offered the TEA, if it joined the main opposition bloc.  Although this is considered a prize position at City Hall, the party turned it down.  It  didn’t want the anti-immigration party Dansk Folkeparti (DF) to take control of Integration and Employment – which was part of the deal.

So instead the left-wing Enhedslisten party has secured mayoral control of Traffic and Environment.  This is a party that’s pro bikes and anti-car, infuriating those on the right who believe business will suffer.

The rest will be decided over the next few days. Exciting isn’t it? Or is it just me?!

A Footnote: Turnout in these local and regional elections was almost 72%. That’s more than 6 points higher than in 2009.  So allowing people to cast early ballots in places like McDonald’s restaurants (see my earlier post here) must have helped.  Something to be noted in countries like the UK perhaps?

If you’re really interested, watch my TV report for Al Jazeera English on this very subject.

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