April 5, 2007

April 5, 2007 | Commentary on

Danes amid Europeans

Herlev, Denmark. -- The 50th anniversary of the European Union passed with but modest notice here in Denmark, where unusually warm spring weather brought Danes out in droves to work in their gardens, drink beer and raise the red and white Danish flag against the backdrop of a sparkling blue sky. Yes, there were conferences and events at the Europa House in Copenhagen, followed by fireworks. And at the museum of ultramodern art, Arken, on the water, politicians gathered for a discussion of Europe's future. Still, the event bore no resemblance to the nationwide celebrations of Denmark's own Constitution Day in June. 

According to most polls, most people here do not feel like Europeans. They feel the way they have always felt - like Danes. This means a contented, rather sheltered life, protected by welfare provisions, and a strong sense of egalitarian unity. Though most Danes do not live lavishly by American standards, and though the welfare state can turn out to be rather threadbare when it comes to such needs as medical care, recent studies have shown Danes to be the happiest people in the world. All of which has very little to do with their views of the European Union. 

Denmark is among the countries that did not vote on the European Constitution - after the Dutch and the French "No" votes derailed the ratification process two years ago. The Danish Constitution mandates that treaty obligations of this order be put to a popular referendum, which the Danish government of Conservative Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen had very good reasons to suspect would not pass. 

Each time the Danes have voted on questions, the vote has come down almost 50-50, with a small margin tipping the balance in favor of the "Yes's" or "No's." This has resulted in a membership that since 1974 has been characterized by caveats and exemptions from the currently common social mandates and defense cooperation. Their attitude toward the EU indeed very much mirrors that of the British, whom they followed into the European Common Market in 1974, reluctantly, but concerned about the possibility of losing their biggest European export market. (Danish pigs have even been bred to fit the tastes of British breakfast tables.) 

It is true, though, that Danish society is changing, losing some of its insularity and closeness, in some respect for reasons connected to the EU and in some cases not. The immigrant population, some 5 percent, is an easily recognizable presence, changing the homogeneous Danish look. Muslim girls wearing headscarves might tally up your groceries at the supermarket, while addressing you in Danish without a trace of foreign accent. Taxi drivers can hail from Pakistan. The girl who weighs your candy in the local candy store may be from an Eritrean refuge family and the plumber who comes to fix your faucet may well be one of the now famous exports of Poland. 

Immigration remains a potent political issue. In order to deprive the extreme right of this particular source of oxygen, Mr. Rasmussen's government has clamped down on immigration and amnesty, which means that Denmark now has some of the strictest laws in Europe. Immigrants are mandated by law to learn Danish in the hope of reducing social isolation and fostering integration into Danish society. Even Danes who marry foreigners under the age of 24 are barred from residing in the country, causing some to take up residence in southern Sweden, just across the bridge that now connects the two countries. 

Yet, the commitment of the government, at least, to the European Union remains unshaken, and it is true that most Danes support the enlargement of the EU and the presence of citizens from the new member states among them. 

Though EU skeptics in Britain and in the United States sometimes look to the Danes to take a stand against the latest bureaucratic overreach from Brussels, it is a fact that Denmark's Conservative government is keen on retaining Denmark's standing in the EU. In an article on the 50th anniversary of the European Union, Mr. Rasmussen hailed the initiative of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which having the EU presidency hosted the official EU celebrations in Berlin, for a new founding document to replace the ill-fated constitution. Mr. Rasmussen also committed himself to working for the removal of the Danish social caveats to the EU and to furthering cooperation on foreign and defense policy, and to the inclusion of the Balkan countries in the EU. 

Whether Danish voters will grant governments the trust to take them further toward European integration is a big question. At the very least, in this small corner of the EU, they have the right to be asked.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First Appeared in the Washington Times