Fortress Denmark?

Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the world on April 21 when he eliminated socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round of France's presidential election. But Le Pen's triumph was merely the latest in a string of right-wing electoral victories that have embarrassed established social democratic regimes throughout Europe. From Italy and Austria to Belgium and Holland, a populist, anti-immigrant, far-right movement, animated by nationalism and xenophobia, is gaining ground. And nowhere is the contrast between the old political discourse and the new more dramatic than in Denmark.

It came as a surprise to nearly everyone when this icon of northern European welfare-state progressivism, and the erstwhile poster child of liberal immigration policy, descended into an inflammatory election campaign last November. The issues of immigration and refugees took center stage, despite Denmark's record-low unemployment and the fact that less than 8 percent of its population is of foreign origin. The result was a November 20 victory for the center-right Liberal Party, which ended nine years of Danish Social Democratic Party (SDP) rule. More ominous, however, was the strong showing of the far-right Danish People's Party (DPP), whose platform centers on reducing the number of immigrants and opposing Danish membership in the European Union (EU). The DPP finished third with an unprecedented 12 percent of the vote. In neighboring Sweden, the daily Dagens Nyheter lamented, "It is difficult to point to any winner in the Danish election, but the losers are easier to identify. They are all those with dark skin, humanism and decency. Goodnight Denmark."

Le Pen has shadowed French politics for decades, peddling an anti-immigrant line that has periodically captured international attention and opprobrium and that has long set the right-most boundary of France's political terrain. In Denmark, however, the DPP brought immigration to the forefront of political debate in a raw and uncompromising manner that was entirely new to the country's politics, and it did so at a time when few other parties were even willing to raise the issue. That the election came shortly after September 11 was fortuitous for the DPP, which capitalized on the inflamed anti-immigrant mood. Mogens Camre, the DPP's European Parliament representative, proclaimed, "All Western countries have been infiltrated by Muslims, some of whom are polite to us while waiting until there's enough of them to get rid of us." And although the DPP led the rhetorical assault, Denmark's political mainstream soon followed, both in public statements and in campaign advertising. The debate on immigration veered dangerously to the right.

The 2001 election campaign made clear that Denmark has reached a turning point. At its core, the country's immigration debate is about social solidarity and the nature of the welfare state -- about who is entitled to remain in the Danish state's benevolent realm and who will be pushed outside of it. Such questions go to the heart of Danish social democracy, and they are quickly becoming Europe's central political dilemma.

Like center-left parties in France, England, and elsewhere, the SDP has gradually embraced free-market reforms over the last three decades, including an incentive based welfare policy and limited privatization. Between 1993 and 2001, under the leadership of Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, the SDP moved steadily toward the center, working feverishly to unite its constituency behind a pro-European economic platform. Many Danes saw Nyrup as a symbol of consensus. But to certain members of the party's working-class base, the prime minister's centrist vision looked more like a betrayal of the party's blue-collar roots. When the DPP raised the immigration issue, this silenced constituency found a voice.

The DPP was formed in 1995 by four members of the Progress Party, a bloc of anti-tax libertarians under the leadership of Pia Kjaersgaard. Abandoning the libertarian mantra of tax reduction, Kjaersgaard blazed a new trail, focusing primarily on stemming the influx of immigrants and opposing Danish membership in the EU. It was no coincidence that these two issues, both of which spoke to working-class anxieties about globalization and the postindustrial economy, struck an immediate chord with many disillusioned blue-collar Social Democrats. The DPP topped off its political platform with a reinforced commitment to comprehensive quality public health care, elderly care, and subsidized housing. Its mounting popularity among poor, less educated Danes led many observers to pronounce the DPP "more social" than the Social Democrats. Looking back, former Prime Minister Nyrup acknowledges, "They took a part of our rhetoric and tried to sell it as a new package to the people, and with some success, one may say."

There was, of course, at least one aspect of the DPP's platform that was legitimately new and that trumped all the others: its overt hostility to immigrants. And for that message, the DPP picked its moment well. Unlike other European nations, Denmark was not a popular destination for immigrants and refugees until fairly recently. Since 1983, however, when the Danish parliament liberalized the country's immigration laws, a steady flow of migrants from Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories have arrived on Denmark's shores, joined more recently by Bosnian and Somali refugees. These largely Muslim immigrants and their descendants total a mere 275,000, or 5 percent of Denmark's population.

Nonetheless, the mid-1990s found many Danes grumbling about the media's supposed lack of immigration coverage. Despite high immigrant-crime rates in urban areas, reporters seemed reluctant to cover stories that might cast immigrants in a negative light. To critics, the political left's refusal to confront the dark side of immigration made it complicit in a spiral of silence. And in this growing public discontent, the editors of Ekstra Bladet, a popular daily tabloid newspaper, saw an opportunity. The paper swiftly produced an avalanche of reporting on refugee abuse of the welfare system, including a 1997 print and television series called The Foreigners, which depicted a Somali man with two wives and 11 children who received upwards of $75,000 per year in welfare benefits. The newspaper's accompanying editorials recommended that the government lower welfare benefits for refugees in order to provide them with incentives to work.

This media onslaught immediately captured the public's attention, and it held special appeal for working-class voters. Concerned about the erosion of its electoral base, the SDP government took notice as well. In the spring of 1997, Prime Minister Nyrup's newly appointed tough-on-immigration minister of the interior, Thorkild Simonsen, announced a plan to lower welfare benefits for immigrants. And so it happened that during the summer of 1998, Ekstra Bladet's recommendation of a two-tiered benefit system became law.

To Danish National School of Social Work sociologist Morten Ejrnaes, the law amounted to second-class citizenship for refugees and a watershed in Danish social policy. "This was one of the first times that someone said there is a group of people that is not entitled to these benefits," Ejrnaes says. Soon after the law's passage, critics appealed to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on the grounds that the legislation violated the UN's 1951 refugee convention, which stipulates that refugees are entitled to the same treatment as citizens. In mid-1999 UNHCR confirmed this charge, and by year's end the law was repealed on the grounds that it "did not work."

Despite the legislative reversal, sentiment among swing voters remained firmly in favor of tough immigration policy. And as opinion polls confirmed the popularity of its views, the DPP grew more confident. Its parliamentary representatives began proposing more stringent policies, including one that called for the deportation of entire immigrant families if one member committed a crime. At this point Nyrup distanced himself from the DPP, arguing that such views were not stuerene -- a word used to describe a dog not clean enough to enter a home.

In the eyes of political commentator and longtime SDP sympathizer Erik Meier Carlsen, this statement was politically suicidal. Carlsen maintains that the DPP has a coherent political platform and must be taken seriously. Marginalizing less-educated voters who hold unsavory views on immigration is counterproductive, he maintains. "You could conclude that these people are basically stupid," says Carlsen, but "their seemingly xenophobic reluctance about immigration is to some degree a very rational fight for substantial economic and political interests."

The same critique might apply to the international press, which has been quick to dismiss the DPP as a radical fringe party defined solely by its xenophobia. But despite the party's rhetorical excesses, its character and context, as Carlsen suggests, are more complex. Rapid demographic change, postindustrial economic malaise, and fear of competition for generous welfare entitlements have propelled the DPP to prominence. And unlike Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in France or Jörg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria, the DPP shows no sign of anti-Semitism. DPP strategic mastermind Søren Espersen is unequivocal in his condemnation of Le Pen, calling him "an idiot" and insisting that "we would not have anything to do with Le Pen." After all, Espersen is not your stereotypical European right-winger: He is married to a Jew and has a daughter living in Israel. Likewise, Denmark is atypical in that its right-wing traditions have never been tied to anti-Semitic or fascist tendencies as in France, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere. Espersen insists that forging alliances with other European right-wing parties is not high on the DPP's agenda, though he and other party leaders did make a trip to Vienna in August 2000, only to be refused a meeting with Haider's party.

Mutual dissociation seems to be the preferred strategy among Europe's far-right parties, as each fears being associated with his neighbor should one become the next target of international outrage. Though Espersen believes Haider has been treated unfairly by the EU and the press, he maintains that Haider's ties to former SS members "would be unheard of here. Any slight tendency of anything Nazi in our party would be dealt with straight away." Bitter recollections of the German occupation during World War II persist in the Danish collective memory, and neo-Nazism has not proved popular with angry youth, the way it has in neighboring Sweden and Norway.

At the core of the DPP worldview is the firm belief that the welfare state can exist only in a "closed circuit." According to Espersen, "It is very difficult to have a welfare state if the borders are open. The responsibility and the will to pay a lot of tax, as we do, must be there and can only be there if there is a nation that you feel a solidarity with." Likening immigrant beneficiaries of Danish welfare to insurance customers "expecting to get a premium paid out without paying something in," Espersen goes on to argue that limited immigration is acceptable, but that "if you say everyone is eligible for the Danish welfare system, it can't be done."

Curiously, the DPP is deploying some of the same rhetoric historically used by the free-market-oriented center-right, which sought to cut back benefits to poor and unemployed Danes -- the current core of the DPP constituency. Indeed, the argument for not forcing "hardworking, responsible taxpayers" to subsidize the poor has simply been directed against a new underclass. This time, however, the underclass is physically and culturally different, and nativist arguments about "solidarity" have provided easy excuses for a new populist ideology of welfare nationalism.

But the DPP's opposition to immigration cannot simply be reduced to economic concerns. Rather, it rests on a fundamental hostility toward the idea of a multicultural society -- especially one that encompasses Islam. "Where Islam is a majority there is a dictatorship," Espersen claims. Projecting a Muslim majority in Denmark 60 years from now, Espersen asks, "Why should this be an exception?" Though he admits that Denmark can still absorb a substantial number of refugees and immigrants each year, it is clear that the DPP would prefer to see them leave the country. Complaining that Denmark's Palestinian refugees express no desire to go home, Espersen insists, "It's not a very nice place to be, but they've got a state of their own now."

As the November election neared, campaign rhetoric on the topic of immigration reached such a fever pitch that the DPP's Kjaersgaard barely needed to weigh in. Unlike in previous campaigns, xenophobia permeated the entire political spectrum. Liberal Party Member of Parliament (MP) Inge Dahl Sørensen proposed interning a portion of Denmark's Muslim population to preserve national security, while her fellow Liberal Party MP Birthe Rønn-Hornbech suggested restricting family reunifications from Muslim countries. Nothing was off-limits.

Nor was the rhetorical assault on immigrants the sole province of right-wing parties. Even the SDP entered the fray when Interior Minister Karen Jespersen pronounced that Islam could not coexist with Danish culture, while fellow Social Democrat Per Kaalund insisted that "Denmark must not develop into a multicultural society." Former Prime Minister Nyrup recalls, "From time to time, people in the SDP used too strong a rhetoric." But he is adamant that such language "wasn't part of a xenophobic tendency in our party."

The rhetoric was enough, however, to make immigrants "very nervous," says Muharrem Aydas, leader of POEM, an umbrella organization for minority groups. "People became worried about their futures, wondering what it would all lead to," Aydas recalls. Mandana Zarrehvarpar, executive director of the Danish Board for Ethnic Equality, is more scathing. "It's a war to get people to vote for you, and [the politicians] don't care if they've made the ethnic minorities into hostages," she says.

Though the tense days of the campaign have passed, the immigration debate continues. After years of virtual political irrelevance, the DPP has been catapulted to the status of parliamentary swing party. And on January 17, the government of new Liberal Party Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen released its proposed immigration reforms amid much fanfare and international curiosity.

At the epicenter of this debate is Minister for Refugees, Immigrants and Integration, Bertel Haarder. The post is a new one in the Danish cabinet, and Haarder's appointment was viewed by most as a concession to moderates and the opposition. Highly respected across the political spectrum as humane and fair, Haarder has served in the European Parliament in Brussels and as education minister at home. But he is now faced with perhaps the most difficult task of his political career: fulfilling the Liberal Party's campaign promises to tighten immigration legislation without violating international conventions. Haarder must also be sufficiently tough to garner the DPP's 22 votes in parliament. Without these, his legislation cannot pass.

At the heart of Haarder's proposed reforms lie deep misgivings about the effectiveness of current welfare policies. "There is, for the vast majority, simply no incentive to work," Haarder insists. While the reforms stipulate lower benefits for Danes as well as newly arrived refugees, critics such as Ejrnaes argue that the law will affect all refugees and only a handful of long-term unemployed Danes. Aydas finds the proposal blatantly discriminatory. "The cost of living is not cheaper for immigrants; rent is still the same, milk costs the same, bread costs the same," he says. While Aydas favors integration into the labor market, he contends that education and labor-market discrimination play roles as well. "New immigrants don't have good Danish skills and have a very hard time getting jobs," he argues. "I can't understand how slashing benefits will make the incentive to find a job greater."

Haarder's proposed reforms also aim to reduce the number of refugees and to extend asylum seekers' waiting periods for residency permits to seven years from three. In addition, fewer family reunifications will be permitted, and those who are admitted risk being sent home if, for example, they get divorced before seven years elapse. In his zeal to "create incentives," critics say, Haarder has created an incentive for immigrant women to remain in abusive relationships for fear of being sent home. Immigrant- and feminist-advocacy groups point out that 35 percent of domestic-violence victims are already immigrant or minority women. Given that the right wing has consistently appropriated feminist rhetoric to encourage immigration caps, ostensibly to reduce Islam's trampling of women's rights, this proposal seems at best ironic and at worst hypocritical.

The government's proposed immigration policy has yet to become law. It is currently under discussion in parliament, where most observers believe it will swiftly pass. Europe is watching closely: On July 1, Denmark will assume the rotating presidency of the EU. Among other tasks on the EU agenda is that of developing a transnational refugee policy.

For Denmark, much hangs in the balance. Does the DPP's rise portend a new direction in Danish politics? Or will the 2001 election retreat into history as a shameful and anomalous chapter? Some of the DPP's detractors hope that the party will simply self-destruct. According to centrist Naser Khader, a Palestinian who is one of two ethnic minority MPs in the Danish parliament, "The best way to weaken the DPP is to give them influence." In his view, the impracticality of the DPP's campaign promises will soon become evident, discrediting the party's platform and forcing it to move to the center.

But the DPP presents a significant challenge, not just to the Danish electorate but to the very notion of Danish national identity in the broadest sense. While many Danes defend last year's caustic campaign as the opening volley in a long overdue and desirable debate, the real discussion has yet to take place. It is a debate, ultimately, about what it means to be Danish -- about whether Denmark's is an ethnic community or a civic one, an exclusionary body politic or an inclusive one. "Danes have an incredibly hard time imagining that one can be an immigrant and at the same time a Dane," says Aydas. He adds, "The foreigner label remains on immigrants for far too long in Denmark. Citizen opposition to mosque building and the government's reluctance to give the green light to a Muslim cemetery only reinforce Aydas' view that politicians don't take immigrants' concerns seriously.

Sooner or later, these concerns will be difficult to ignore. According to the government-subsidized Think Tank on Integration, Denmark's immigrant population will nearly double in the next 20 years, regardless of how restrictive immigration laws become. At this rate, according to a Think Tank report, there will be over 745,000 Danish residents with foreign roots by 2021, constituting 13 percent of the country's projected population.

Like many of its neighbors, this country has reached a crossroads. In one direction lies a regressive policy of isolationism -- one that idealizes a nostalgic image of an innocent Danish past. The other envisages a multicultural society, enriched by the benefits of cosmopolitanism but also beset by its challenges.

In many ways, for those who care to see it, the latter already exists. When I visited Copenhagen in January, I stopped for lunch at one of the many downtown cafés owned by Middle-Eastern immigrants. Here falafel and shawarma are served while Arabic techno-pop and American gangsta rap blare alternately from the speakers. As I pored over my notes, I overheard excited chatter from a neighboring table. But it was not until I looked up that I realized these teenage boys, conversing in fluent Danish, were actually Turkish and Pakistani immigrants. Or were they Danes? That is something this nation has yet to decide.