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Empty tokenism in Danish politics creates new lows in ‘values’ debate

Danish politics is facing potentially radical changes. Not only has Denmark ruined its humanitarian socialist image of welfare and equality, but it has also seen numerous prominent politicians moving to the left as the Social Democrats perversely voted with the right-wing parties to approve the controversial amendment to the Immigration and Asylum Act L’87, last week. An upsurge of ambiguity in the use of terms such as Danish culture, integration and multiculturalism has fuelled the debates and projected domestic insecurities about what it means to be Danish onto refugees and migrants. This works to the benefit of centre and right-wing politics because the concept of Danish culture will never be clear-cut and, with culture being ever-changing, it creates fear amongst people who are under the illusion that we “once had” a pure cultural platform. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy of fear arising out of an unrealistic concept of culture as territorial or national, which needs “protection” from the perceived negative influence of the “Others”.

Tightening up the L’87 act, with stricter controls on border with Germany, has reduced the number of people seeking refuge in Denmark from 632 in the first week of January to 241 last week, according to figures released by the foreign ministry. A total of 1,400 refugees are seeking asylum in Denmark, a country with a similar population as Lebanon, which has taken in 1.5 million refugees, despite its own structural and political instability. To call the influx of refugees to Europe or Denmark a “crisis” is close to satire, being used as a tool to create deep social and political divisions across Europe. The “fortress Europe” rhetoric of “protection” and “values” is empty tokenism, a cheap shot by the right-wing to collect or rather “save” frightened voters who are unaware of the reality on the ground, or the geo-political conditions and responsibility for the war from which Syrians are seeking refuge.

The opposition parties Alternativet, Enhedslisten and Radikale Venstre say that L’87 is simply tokenistic. Members and supporters of the Social Democrats have started to switch allegiance to the left-wing Radikale Venstre as the centre party’s tradition for humanism has taken a knock with its shift to the right, putting the vulnerable in society even more at risk.

The radical right-wing party Dansk Folkeparti’s initiation of the race to establish new political lows in the early 2000s has consequences for today’s political debates. It’s a normalisation of empty tokenism signifying that Denmark “doesn’t want you and if you have to be here, we will make it hard.” The L’87 act is brutal, forcing people to be apart from each other for three years and taking jewellery from refugees, allegedly to help “fund their stay”. Johanne Schmidt Nielsen, the leader of the left-wing Enhedslisten, complained at the parliamentary meeting that followed the acceptance of L’87 that the political debate is deceitful as jewellery, of course, will not be used for anything in reality; it is simply a mechanism to scare people away from Denmark’s borders. No denial of the veracity of this claim was made.

Several top politicians within the Social Democrats — the most prominent being Jens Rhode MEP — have moved to Radikale Venstre or Alternativet, both of which are to the left of the Social Democrats. A recent survey from Megaphon shows a 7 per cent drop in support for the latter, with voters migrating in a surge to Radikale Venstre and Alternativet. The director of Megaphon, Asger H Nielsen, is sure that the poll results are accurate. “If you disagree with it,” he insists, “then you live in a bubble.”

The left-wing parties believe that immigration will enrich Denmark, and tend not to talk immigration down as a threat to Danish values, whatever they are. The right-wing parties in Denmark and elsewhere, though, are capitalising on their own perception of Danish (or British, or German) culture, so much so that they created a (high) cultural canon of Danish art in 2004, with works from across the centuries grouped together as “Danish culture”. Former Minister of Culture Brian Mikkelsen often linked his own political Værdikamp (“battle for values”) to this canon. He received a lot of criticism for this, for which he apologised, and yet along with many of his party members has repeated it several times. The obsession with Værdikamp is now an unquestioned omnipresent paranoia of losing Danish values (yet to be defined), but forming the premise for the new changes to L’87.

From the centre and right, the political parties generally have a static view of what culture actually is. It has always been fluid and dynamic, something that has been proven time and time again. However, these parties are convinced that they need to “protect Danish values” within Danish culture, although no clear definitions are offered for any of this contentious terminology. A similar discussion — or lack thereof — is taking place in Britain, with David Cameron’s right-wing Conservative government insisting that schools, and Muslims in particular, embody as yet undefined “British values”.

An insight into what “values” in Denmark might actually be was given recently by the government as it pushed to make pork mandatory on the menu in public institutions, so as to “protect” Danish society from any special catering for minorities (in this case, Muslims). In other words, tokenism that will not benefit anyone, other than to send a clear symbol that multiculturalism and multi-faith societies are not welcome in Denmark. The message is clear: if Muslims or other minorities end up in the country, well, they will be given a hard time. As much as this episode shows what the government means by “Danish values”, it also shows just how juvenile its concept is.

Furthermore, the Danish right-wing seems to have conflated integration with assimilation, sending the signal that if you’re a Muslim and you plan to come to the city of Randers, for example, then don’t expect to be able to impose Islamic eating habits on others. “Pork here is on an equal footing with other food,” is how Frank Noergaard, a member of the populist Danish People’s Party (DF) and Randers city council member, described it.

Integration, of course, is a negotiation of cultures and values in various ways to make sense of one’s life. Should one fail to do this in Randers, one can go to Slagelse and negotiate culture and values there. The point is that there is no single Danish culture across the whole national territory; it is not homogenous and does not come with inscribed values; the same is true for all nations. Anthropologists have always been convinced that culture is and will be fluid and dynamic just as we, as people: ever-changing and challenging ourselves and others.

During the last Danish election, the debate about multiculturalism must have made anthropologists and humanists weep as the leaders of the Social Democrats, Venstre and Dansk Folkeparti were vying with each other to hit new racist lows. “We have not made the conditions better for immigrants,” the former Social Democrat leader Helle Thorning told Danish Radio in the debate, as she defended her party against accusations that it — the former ruling party — had made Denmark “attractive” for asylum seekers.

What we are seeing in Denmark at the moment is the result of populist politics and the conflation of values, culture and welfare, about none of which the right-wing have any clear idea. The empty tokenism and campaigning of fear and conflicting policies and values of the party have reshaped the broad spectrum of the political centre to put clear water between the left and right-wing.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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