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 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.

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.

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.

Copenhagen unites after terror attacks

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Thousands attend Copenhagen memorial

I’ve just returned from a very moving public memorial to those killed and injured in the terror attacks in Copenhagen at the weekend. Thousands of people gathered in Østerbro near the Krudttonden cafe, where the first shooting took place, to hear speeches and music. Despite the crowds this was typically Danish – calm, respectful, united.

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Flowers laid near the seen of the first shooting

Among the speakers was Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. She spoke mostly in Danish but also offered her thanks in both English and French to those supporting Denmark in its time of need. “We feel we are not alone,” she said to big cheers. Also on stage was the French ambassador to Denmark, François Zimeray, who was caught up in the first attack. He talked about this being a ‘before and after’ life event and thanked the Danish police, acknowledging that without them “I wouldn’t be standing here”.

And everywhere I looked you couldn’t fail to see the increased police presence. Of course, that’s what you’d expect in a city that’s been under attack. But having lived in Copenhagen for almost two years, it’s not what I’m used to. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have seen a police officer, yet alone one armed. In this capital, everything seems safe: young children cycle alone to school; parents leave sleeping babies in prams outside restaurants; children still play on the streets.

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Some of the crowd

There is a danger that this freedom and openness will now be lost. The country has a lot to deal with, not least the very public debate it’s been having for some time about immigration and integration. Tonight I felt hope that Denmark will do all it can to stay united. But with an election later this year, I just hope that won’t be exploited.

Embrace us Denmark!

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Speaking at the DI Business conference. Photographer: Hans Søndergård

At times it’s awkward being a foreigner in Denmark. And although many people aspire to live here, there is an anti-immigrant rhertoric. Yes, I’m from the UK where we too have a debate going on about immigration. But the language used in Denmark, often by politicians, can at times appear pretty xenophobic.

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Danish PM, Helle Thorning-Schmidt

On Tuesday the Confederation of Danish Industry, DI, held its annual conference. It was a big event and had some impressive speakers including Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the new Finnish PM Alexander Stubb (who stole the show), former Italian PM, Mario Monti and a host of others – including me.

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Finnish PM Alexander Stubbs

Several months ago DI decided the AGM would focus on how to make Denmark more attractive and friendly towards foreigners. That was a pretty brave move when you realise that even mainstream politicians talk openly about ‘us’ and ‘them’.

The leader of the opposition, Lars Lokke Rasmussen from Venstre, was on stage talking about the issue of ‘social dumping’ and ‘welfare tourism’. He talked openly about closing the door to people the Danes don’t want. The party has already discussed an immigration policy based on religion – yes to Christians and no to Muslims.

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DI asked Danes to treat foreigners better and to think of ways to attract more high-skilled workers. There was a call to cut the administrative red tape for foreigners along with more help with understanding tax, schools and housing. There was agreement reached by both the PM and Rasmussen that more affordable international schools will be built (there is a big shortage in Denmark).

When I was on stage with two fellow foreign journalists we also discussed our experiences of Danish life. On the one hand there’s a great work-life balance. But on the other, it can feel hard to fit in (and I know language is an obvious barrier). But I was very impressed with just how welcoming people involved with DI were. I do now feel that Danes – even politicians – are listening. And that can only be a good thing.

And you can watch all the speeches and discussion from the DI conference by clicking here. It includes the Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubbs, who really is worth a watch.

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.