Bernie Sanders points to Denmark

Denmark is known as a country where social justice prevails and where everyone has secured a daily life without having to live in worry about tomorrow, even if sickness and unemployment knock on the door. I was born in Denmark, two generations ago, and couldn't help but feeling a bit proud, when the Democratic candidate for the US presidency, Bernie Sanders, pointed to Denmark as a model to be emulated by the USA. What is it worth to be big and mighty, if it does not contribute to give better living conditions to people, asked Sanders. He identified some outstanding characteristics of Denmark: It is low on poverty, low on inequality, high on income, high on tax, high on welfare, high on innovation and high on employment, with generous time off for vacations and newborns and with a relatively high amount of leisure time for workers. But the ghost of Senator McCarthy - a fervent anti-communist – is still very much alive in the USA. In the shadow of the presumed Danish socialism, Sanders lost at the primaries during the two last presidential elections.

A country governed by justice

Comparatively speaking Denmark may seem like a worthwhile model to Bernie Sanders, but in fact the Neo-liberal market forces have contributed to a serious downturn of benefits to its citizens. Denmark’s membership of the European Common Market since 1972 has taken a heavy toll on the Danish welfare model. As a consequence of a high percentage of unionized workers in the Scandinavian countries and their close association with socialist-oriented parties, at least until the close of the millennium, the Danish people had the benefits of a highly efficient welfare package negotiated by the syndicates.

As the system peaked at the end of the 90s, Danish public institutions offered equal access to health and education services for everybody with a Danish address. The collective agreements between the syndicates and employers’ organizations – public as well as private – compensated anyone employed at an agreement covered workplace against sickness, a minimum of five weeks of vacation annually, maternity leave and a number of other welfare benefits. Those not employed at a workplace covered by a collective agreement would be covered for a certain period of time by a social assistance package paid for by municipal authorities during sickness and unemployment.

Economic and social equality for everybody was the ideal behind the Danish model. The system did not discriminate on basis of the background of beneficiaries. As a consequence, Denmark soon acquired an international reputation as a country characterized by tolerance and hospitality. The Danes came to be seen as a people guided by principles of justice, tolerance and empathy and came to be ranked among the highest among European countries when refugees sought asylum.

EU limits welfare expenditures

It is little known to the general public that the US played an important role in the formation of the European common market. The American Committee on United Europe, formed in 1948, secured via the CIA financing of the European Movement, which eventually led to the Rome Treaty – the foundation of today’s European Union, which helped to secure the West-European countries under the sphere of the USA's economic control and dominance.

The social democratic party formed the Danish government from 1929 until the 80s when parliamentary majority could not be assured without support from right-wing and populist parties. Gradually, the impact of the European partnership had a detrimental impact on all Danish political parties and the social democratic party ceased its traditional socialist policies.

During the 90s and throughout the two first decades of the new millennium, we witness a shift to the right with the consequence for legislation aimed at controlling migration into Denmark and setting limits to welfare benefits to foreigners, including EU migrant workers. New and Revised welfare packages discriminated between citizens with immigrant roots and ethnic Danes - favoring the latter. Recipients of welfare goods also suffered from the privatization of certain services, such as those which traditionally had been offered to residents of retirement homes. Now you had to pay for a number of ‘extras’, such as picnics and wine with your food.

The European Union set limits to the autonomy of national governments by enforcing ceilings on public expenses in accordance with an annual framework established by the EU Parliament in Brussels. The central government in Copenhagen was charged with the supervision of local government expenditures. This limited the use of funds for public services, including welfare benefits. With the growing power of the EU parliament on national budgets, the number of homeless people has become a regular feature of the street life of inner cities in Denmark.

War machines rather than welfare-goods

The Danish government gives high priority to military and security cooperation with the United States and other NATO allies. The impact of this practice is rarely debated, neither in parliament nor in the media. The Social Democratic government, with support of the former NATO opposition party, the Radical Left – in fact, a center party and not at all radical - are today falling over each other to demonstrate their readiness to defend 'the free world' and American security interests, whenever Washington hits the drums of war. There is apparently no shortage of resources when it comes to participating in overseas engagements in the form of military contributions. Danish military contributed significantly to the fall of the Libyan president Qaddafi with its NATO warplanes. Denmark has been a staunch supporter of US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and presently, Danish special forces provide military support in Mali. If any country in the old world, in addition to the United Kingdom, qualifies for a special relationship with the United States, it is Denmark. This close association with the world's police officer and active support to its foreign and security policy does not attract much attention by mainstream media in Denmark or around the world, where Denmark is still better known for H.C. Andersen, The Little Mermaid, dairy products and castle idyll.

Replacing welfare with state-sponsored discrimination

Returning to Denmark after a generation abroad I should soon learn that welfare and daily life in Denmark is not what it used to be. I observed sadly that the welfare of individual citizens has fallen substantially in many areas. Fear of tomorrow has become a widespread feeling among working families. Today, it is possible to be served in large department stores and supermarkets until late at night, whereas it is associated with great difficulties to get a visit from the doctor on call. Outside the larger urban areas, many families are without a medical practitioner. Professional organizations and labor unions that fought for employee's right to human working hours seem to have lost their previous momentum.

Former World Bank economist and Nobel laureate Stieglitz has noticed that globalization of Neo-liberal policies is like a race to the bottom. It is both unwise and unjust, he believes. The international institutions of the UN are powerless, when competing with transnational enterprises for control of globalization. They can make some cosmetic patchwork, and thus contribute to replacing guilt-ridden feelings among populations in western industrialized countries with more positive ones. The UN expertly presents success stories to its donors, but it will never be able to eliminate the basic causes of inequality and global poverty, as long as a majority of its board members are made up of representatives from western governments. Denmark is full of praise for the UN, although some of the right-wing parties on several occasions have suggested that Denmark should not be obligated by UN conventions when the implication is that Danes must share their welfare with refugees, other immigrants and migrant EU workers.

Refugees seen as immigrants of convenience

The principle of free movement of workers within the EU has meant that unorganized workers especially from East European countries often accept wages significantly below those received by organized workers. The result has been that breadwinners in many families have fallen into unemployment. At the same time, we have witnessed a growing influx of refugees into Europe. These two factors combined had a critical impact on the welfare state. However, non-European refugees, often with a Muslim background, have become victims in the political fight of gaining parliamentary control. The Danish political landscape is dominated by “subsistence politicians”, who for generations have depended on politics as a livelihood since they often have little or no real-life experience. They will use any argument to keep their parliamentary seat. Muslim refugees are frequently used as a trump card to gain votes. Main-stream media have been very instrumental in the presentation of refugees as parasites at the root of hardships afflicting the working population of Denmark. Populist parties, such as Denmark’s People’s Party, became very influential in lawmaking curbing the rights of foreigners until the Social Democrats adopted their policies.

Xenophobic legislation

The impact of globalization accelerated by the membership of the EU and continued influence of a Neo-liberal economy, aggressively controlled by the USA, has had the unintended result of exposing a new image of the Danes to the international community. Until recently the Danes were known for their tolerance and empathy towards problems suffered by less fortunate people far away. Today the Danish people are grouped with other xenophobic European countries, such as Hungary.

While the average Dane still tends to see himself as a tolerant person, open to foreigners, he is in fact perceived by immigrants as a person dominated by a strong sense of cultural and often racial superiority. For centuries the Danes never had to question themselves about identity, since they had seldom been confronted by a foreign culture. Now the majority of Danish voters seek to protect themselves from fear of strangers and foreign cultures through the establishment of xenophobic legislation aimed at keeping out individuals and groups which do not match their idea of what it means to be Danish. Thus Danish citizens of immigrant parents, refugees and Danes of mixed origin are among those affected by legislation which regulate welfare benefits and the right to become citizens. Most, if not all, political parties represented in the parliament support current legislation, even left-wing parties. The law which sets the requirements for gaining citizenship gives descendants of Danish immigrants to Argentina automatic citizenship, as long as you can prove that you descend from pure Danish ancestors, who might have emigrated to Argentina more than 150 years ago. Common descent to Danish ancestry is more important than proven cultural and linguistic integration. Therefore, if you are a foreign woman married to a Dane, you do not automatically qualify for citizenship, even when your children automatically obtain Danish citizenship at birth, when the father is Danish. It is therefore fitting to describe racism as an intrinsic part of Danish culture. Blood is stronger than the social milieu.

The number of refugees seeking asylum in Denmark peaked in 2015 with 21316 refugees granted asylum out of a total of 60.000 applicants. Although the majority came from war-torn countries, they were in the media often referred to as refugees of convenience. In early 2016 the Danish parliament agreed to the so-called ‘jewelry-law’ which directed the police at border crossings to take jewelries from refugees, presumably to pay for legal costs of their demand for asylum to avoid them becoming a burden to public budgets. Two years later, the law had only harvested about 30.000 US $ from asylum seekers. The law was criticized by other EU member countries and came under hard attack on BBC’s Hard Talk, where a comparison was made to similar legislation made by Nazi Germany to deprive Jews of their property. The jewelry-law was just a beginning.

The Ghetto-law

The Danish parliament introduced a new set of laws with the so-called Ghetto-law which aims at regulating life in 25 low-income and heavily Muslim enclaves. Families who are not willing to merge into the country’s mainstream, risk at worst to be compelled from the country or at best expelled from their residence. The ghetto-law was proposed on the assumption that immigrants exploit the welfare state by not actively seeking employment, that they are more criminal than the average citizens, and that communities where immigrants live prevent them from being integrated into the Danish monoculture. The Ghetto-law was agreed upon by a majority of parliament in 2018 and is praised by most of the Danish political parties, including the governing social democratic party and thus implicitly the left-wing parties which ensure parliamentary majority to the social democratic minority government.

The Ghetto-law underscores the proposition that racism and intolerance, especially towards Muslims, are deeply ingrained into Danish behavior. The Ghetto-law prescribes that ghetto children must be separated from their families at the age of one year for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap time, for mandatory instruction in “Danish values,” including the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and Danish language. Non-compliance could result in a stoppage of welfare payments, such as financial aid during unemployment and sickness. Ethnic Danes are free to choose whether to enroll children in preschool up to the age of six.

Denmark’s heritage as slave owners

The xenophobia underlying recent legislation targeting foreigners has deep roots. A Danish researcher, Helle Stenum, on migration policies and practices produced a documentary for television on Denmark’s involvement in the slave trade. Denmark colonized for a period of 200 years three small islands in the West Indies until they were sold to the USA in 1917. Thousands of African slaves were shipped on Danish merchant vessels from West Africa, particularly from the Danish enclave on the Gold Coast - present-day Ghana. Helle Stenum shows in her documentary how Danish behavior patterns today have been influenced by past experiences as masters and slave owners. She entitled her documentary We carry it within us, thus suggesting that the values underlying recent legislation aiming at regulating the lives of foreigners and would-be-immigrants to Denmark form an integral part of Danish cultural heritage. Literature describing life in the former Danish West Indies provides horrible stories about slaves willing to commit suicide or swim through dangerous waters to nearby British islands in the West Indies to avoid the inhuman treatment meted out by Danish slave masters, who generally were depicted as being more cruel and inhumane than those of other slave nations, such as the Brits, the Dutch and the French.

No breaking news from Denmark

Seen from the perspective of Bernie Sanders, Denmark is like a suburb to planet earth. A sleeping suburb which does not stick out and catches nobody’s eyes. But the Danes are sleepwalkers with deep-seated suspicion towards strangers. They close their eyes to a reality, which already surrounds them. Such people do not deserve to be held up as a model to anybody. Since the Muhammad cartoons appeared in 2005, no ‘breaking news’ have come out of Denmark. Slowly the image of tolerance has changed and been replaced by one of xenophobia and intolerance. In 2019 the number of refugees granted asylum had dropped to around 1783 persons, a drop of close to 90 % compared with five years ago.

Denmark is one of the few EU countries which officially has reversed the EU policy of accepting multiculturalism as an official policy with recognition of diversity and minority rights. Denmark is still officially a mono-cultural society, in spite of more than 10 % of its population being made up of individuals with foreign background, 6.1 % from non-western countries and 5 % being Muslims. Although immigration policies apply the concept of integration, they aim in fact towards assimilation into the Danish mono-culture.

Building a multi-cultural identity

Escaping the imprisonment of xenophobic paranoia would require carefully planned and strategically well thought out activities. It would call for firm and decisive government interventions with the support of the entire parliament, following a fundamental change of values among the people. Present election procedures do not offer much hope for positive reforms, since it depends on an enlightened electorate, which presupposes intelligent and courageous journalists as well as politicians. The average politician is well aware that Denmark and other EU countries are in need of a new and fresh supply of workers from outside the EU to counteract its ailing population. Unfortunately, no member of parliament is likely to use such awareness in favor of legislative reforms, as long as his seat depends on votes from a xenophobic population held in fear of foreign cultures by a media, which needs to survive by selling news to secure their financial basis of advertisers. It is a vicious circle, with the Danish people held as hostages and losers.

If the parliament sincerely had Denmark’s welfare at heart – and not merely that of maintaining the subsistence of its members - it would do well to advocate for innovative immigration policies and rights to become citizens. It would review the school curriculum to ensure that children learned to adapt to a multi-cultural community. It would demand from labor unions, during its regular review of existing labor agreements, that they conduct workshops and seminars on how union-members should accommodate to a multicultural society and it would conduct seminars for journalists to ensure that valid information reached the Danish population through all media possible, including the social ones. Only then would the Danes have a possibility of being set free from xenophobia with a chance to develop new relationships.

With intensive and well-focused information campaign over the next five to ten years, the Danes would learn to see themselves as members of a multi-cultural society. With a multi-cultural identity adopted by a majority of Danes, the parliament would have the courage to introduce laws and regulations which would ensure just and equal treatment for everybody, regardless of race, religion and origin. Adopting such laws in line with the needs of the future, would not threaten the selfish behavior of subsistence politicians. Moreover, these laws, yet to come, would not contradict international conventions and Sanders would again be able to point towards Denmark as a model - should he be given such an opportunity!