Brexit, Business and Booze

12/09/2017. London, Great Britian. 2017 WSTA Annual Conference.

Interviewing former Trade Minister, Lord Price.  Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts

Last week I had the privilege of interviewing five experts about the on-going British drama ‘Brexit’. I was in London for the annual conference of the Wine and Spirits Trade Association (WSTA) – a body that represents a £50 billion industry. Members are currently unimpressed with the government’s Brexit strategy – particularly the continual in-fighting. And when your business is all about imports and exports, you can see why leaving the world’s largest trading bloc might be cause for concern.

My first guest was the former head of Waitrose, Lord Price. He’d left his thirty year career with the John Lewis Partnership to become a government Trade Minister. But a few days before the conference, Lord Price quit government. It’s clear he is no fan of Brexit, and thinks that those who voted for it will be left disappointed. But having travelled the globe for 15 months as trade minister, he is certain the UK will eventually thrive. It’s just the time it will take to get to that point that’s the problem. Here’s the Guardian’s take on our interview.

12/09/2017. London, Great Britian. 2017 WSTA Annual Conference.

Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts

I must also add what a delightful man Lord Price is. He’s written a book called ‘Fairness for All’ in which he demands a fairer kind of capitalism and seeks to explain why Brexit happened and Trump was elected. He also hammers home the importance of happiness at work, and says that’s the key to increasing productivity and therefore profits. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his book and feel a few bosses might also benefit!

12/09/2017. London, Great Britian. 2017 WSTA Annual Conference.

Interviewing Wetherspoon boss, Tim Martin. Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts

Next up was Tim Martin, the millionaire founder of the British pub chain, Wetherspoon. Mr Martin is an ardent Brexiteer and contrary to the views of most of his audience, is in no doubt that the UK’s vote to leave the EU will be good for Britain. Although he had 200,000 pro-Brexit beer mats printed in the run up to the EU referendum, he is by no means anti migration. Given that one in 10 of his own staff comes from outside the UK, he knows how hard it can be to find workers. What Mr Martin says he feels passionately about is democracy and reclaiming ‘British sovereignty’. He dislikes the European Union to such an extent that he doesn’t think it matters whether or not the UK and EU secure a Free Trade Agreement post Brexit. (And yes, I did point out that would mean wine from the EU becoming more expensive, not to mention non-tariff barriers like customs delays.)

12/09/2017. London, Great Britian. 2017 WSTA Annual Conference.

From L to R: Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, Tim Martin, me & Sir Simon Fraser. Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts

You can imagine the response that got from my next two guests, both of whom have worked in Brussels. Until 2015, Sir Simon Fraser was head of the British Foreign Office and is now managing partner of the business advisory, Flint Global. He was joined by the international lawyer, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez who advises clients on EU trade law policy and Brexit. Both are convinced that the UK will suffer economically post Brexit and believe the country must have in place some kind of transition period to soften the blow. Of course Tim Martin disagreed with almost everything they said. It made for a challenging, interesting and at times, entertaining discussion.  It’s a serious and extremely complex subject. But at least afterwards we could enjoy a glass of (English) wine or a (British) gin and tonic.

 

Brexit: As felt by a Brit in Berlin

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A series of anti Brexit posters in Mitte, Berlin

Over the past nine months, I have managed to avoid the B word in this blog. It’s been a tough one because it potentially affects tens of millions of us living and working in the European Union (the UK included).

But today, I can no longer ignore the elephant in the room. The formal process for the UK to leave the EU has now begun. The UK is due to exit the European Union two years from now.

While some readers may be celebrating, I am not. As much as I try to be an impartial observer, this issue has really perplexed me. It has divided not just towns and cities across the UK but friends and families – mine included. And our differing opinions on this are as entrenched now as they were in the run up to the referendum back in June 2016.

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Flag waving at a concert in Berlin celebrating 60 years of the EU

Of course, I have a vested interest in all this because my husband, children and I are enjoying freedom of movement. We moved to Copenhagen in 2013 and to Berlin at the beginning of 2017. So where does Brexit leave us? Who really knows? Like the other million or so Brits currently living in the EU along with the three million or so Europeans in the UK, we are in the hands of the politicians. The script is unwritten.

As much as I am an optimist, I worry about my home country. I am not convinced that we really understand what we’ve done – politically, economically or socially. As a journalist it’s fascinating to watch, particularly from Berlin. But as a Brit enjoying the freedoms of the EU, I am not enjoying this one bit.

 

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.

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.

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.