How Denmark faces immigration

Ulf Hedetoft
30 October 2003

In Denmark, the radical shift in recent political debate about migration and asylum is registered in language as much as in public policy. Ulf Hedetoft charts the way that a new discourse is changing the way Danes talk to each other about the strangers in their midst.

“This is all about what makes a modern society function. And to that end, not all cultures are equally good”. A central passage in a leading article in one of Denmark’s largest daily newspapers, Jyllands-Posten (17 June 2003), thus describes and acclaims a recent Danish government White Paper on integration.

The passage is as revealing as the White Paper itself. Integration of immigrants and their descendants is now debated in terms of culture as the pivotal benchmark – and not just culture as a relative notion, but as an absolute yardstick of “core values” which newcomers must be measured by, and before which their own culture must yield.

Such explicit demands for “cultural transformation” (as the White Paper calls it) reflect a novel consensus in Denmark. The assimilationist discourse itself is not new, but three aspects of it are: its near-total political hegemony; the assumed linkage between “culture”, “cohesion” and “social functionality” that underlies both the discourse and its associated policies in the area of integration; and the way in which this discourse has, on its own terms, started to assimilate and demote pluricultural discourses.

The Danish “tribe” under threat

The present Liberal-Conservative government came to office in Denmark in November 2001, ousting the old Social Democratic/Radical Party coalition. The issue of immigration had dominated the general election campaign. The general tone of the debate was acrimonious, bordering on vengeful; immigration was projected as the most imminent and serious threat to the history, culture, identity and homogeneity of “little Denmark”.

The governing coalition, somewhat to its surprise, found itself on the defensive, in spite of having pushed through an array of proposals, policies and practices over the previous five to six years which all contributed toward a tighter Danish immigration and integration regime. The opposition astutely capitalised on a debate climate pervaded by diffuse fears, moral panics and unspecified enemy images. They created expectations that they could not only put a virtual stop to any further inflows of undesirable aliens, but also that they would be able to reinstate Denmark to its former status as a peaceful, ethnically homogeneous and politically sovereign welfare state.

In an important sense, therefore, the present Danish government owes its life to the question of immigration. It depends for its continued popular backing largely on its policies and successes in this field.

The tone and language of the the election campaign was carried by the incoming Liberal-Conservative government into a barrage of tough policy proposals. Equally important, it elaborated a matching (’no-nonsense’) discourse which emphasised responsible behaviour, demands, values, obligations, and self-reliance as key signifiers; a discourse that mixed particularistic demands for national acculturation with a laissez-faire, self-help message of market-oriented individualism.

This kind of discourse was embodied in a number of policy initiatives that soon started to flow from the newly-formed Ministry for Refugees, Immigrants and Integration, under the leadership of Bertel Haarder. It inspired a leading article in another national Danish daily, Politiken (18 January 2002), which criticised the new government’s policies as focusing on “ethnic purity” and on “protecting the Danish tribe”, which supposedly “cannot abide being mixed with other inhabitants of the globe”.

One of the laws Politiken had in mind was the new threshold for transnational marriages, intended to curb family reunification. This law specifies that marriages between young persons of immigrant origin settled in Denmark and foreign residents can only take place if both parties are over 24 years old. The legislation, which led to a number of unintended consequences involving “genuine” Danes, is now under revision so that it may only affect immigrants from ’third world’ countries .

The common counter-arguments to such criticism are of two kinds. One kind is functional/economistic – there can be no effective integration without severe limitations on immigration. On balance, however, this argument comes across as legitimating a prior motive of protecting the Danish ethnie, and the benefits of its homogeneous composition.

Thus, spokespersons for the preservation of historical Danishness often move on to a second kind of argument to justify their ideological attack on immigration. This sees the issue in existential, even apocalyptic terms. An example comes from the first reading in the Danish Folketing (parliament), in April 2002, of a proposal to permit the naturalisation of specified foreign residents. A major representative of the Danish People’s Party (DPP) and vicar in the Church of Denmark, Søren Krarup, argued that “Danes are increasingly becoming foreigners in their own country(...) Parliament is permitting the slow extermination of the Danish people”. He continued by predicting that “our descendants” will “curse” those politicians who are responsible for increasing the “alienation of Danes in Denmark”.

Krarup’s discourse – along with many similar contributions to current political debates about immigration – verges on a charge of high treason against the political establishment for its failure to defend the foundational identity of Danishness. The external menace – globalisation as represented by hordes of cultural aliens – has entered into an unholy alliance with “our own” elites, people elected to defend our interests and our collective historical destiny. It is this collusion which is allegedly putting the very future of Danishness in jeopardy.

A revolution in language

The nationalist positions articulated by people like Søren Krarup currently set the dominant tone of public debates. Indeed, over the last decade or so, they have acted as the main catalyst for the transformation of assumptions and discourses in this sensitive policy field. The core of these developments can briefly be captured in terms of three crucial transformative processes.

From humanitarianism to nationalism

The first transformation consists in the gradual replacement of humanitarian and compassion-based approaches to the question of asylum and refugees, by discourses and policies of national interest and utility (“What’s the benefit for us?”); of identity scares (“Can Danishness survive the religious and civilisational challenge?”); of social cohesion (“How can we deal with criminal immigrants and ethnic ghettoes?”); and of welfare-state policies and political participation (“Can the universalist welfare model survive?”).

In the course of the 1990s, answers to such questions, both by political actors, media opinion-leaders and ordinary citizens, became increasingly negative or sceptical. The accumulated result was a barrage of legislative initiatives intended to introduce stricter controls and tougher conditions for obtaining asylum and gaining access to social opportunities and welfare provisions.

From defensive to offensive “cultural struggle”

The second transformation process consists of a change from a defensive stance regarding the question of identity, values and belonging to a new position characterised by national self-assertiveness and carried by the conviction that “our” values and culture are indisputably superior.

This is a change caused and framed by the macro-political global shift from cultural relativism and interethnic harmony to the cultural and political absolutism accompanying the victory of the west in the cold war, the “clash of civilisations” discourses of the 1990s, and the “war on terror” following 9/11.

The field of migration has for reasons of high global politics become linked with security concerns and the need to monitor and control the flow of people. Champions of the national cause are here presented with an opportunity to have ethno-national identity circumscribed and legitimised by an all-embracing discourse of universal human rights, one that can also pinpoint and denigrate other cultures, religions and traditions as inferior.

From “dependence” to “self-reliance”

The third transformation process is (by contrast to the second, which belongs in the domain of assimilationist demands on newcomers) integrationist – in the sense that it entails inclusionary processes that respect the private/public divide.

It is also a step beyond the tradional integrationist model, based on state-regulated integration via the social welfare system. The new liberalist approach demands that ethnic minorities prove their economic self-reliance through educational performance, snappy acquisition of linguistic skills and proactive integration into the labour-market, thus ridding themselves of dependence on government aid.

If they fail in these efforts, they will be penalised by a reduction in welfare payments (or none at all); additional demands, incentives or pressures to resettle; diminished hopes for permanent residence (let alone citizenship); or a life lived permanently on the margins of society. Good behaviour, on the other hand, increases the prospects of obtaining residence after five years (otherwise the limit is seven); of being allowed to be geographically mobile within Denmark (otherwise mobility is restricted during the first three years of residence); and of being permitted to bring family members from countries of origin to Denmark.

The story Danes are telling themselves

The current climate of Danish public debate, together with the country’s integration policy regime, combines three apparently divergent elements:

  • assimilation: this employs a culturalist and universalist human rights discourse, and legitimates a trangression of the public/private divide, whether called for in functional or moral terms. Politically, this position is most vehemently championed by the DPP; it has by now been widely accepted across the political spectrum, most emphatically by the government coalition between Liberals and Conservatives.

  • integration: this employs “equal footing” and “equal access” discourse, both as a set of demands on ethnic minorities and in defence of calls on employers to behave in a non-discriminatory manner. This liberal, republican and legalist discourse respects the public/private divide. It also involves market-oriented self-help and self-reliance measures. The traditional spokespersons for this approach come from influential sections of the Social Democrats, the Radical Party and recently the Socialist People’s Party too.

  • pluriculturality: this employs diversity (management) discourse, reflecting the fact of ethnic diversity and a plural world, but within a pragmatic-instrumental modality (“let’s take advantage of it!”). This stance has traditionally been championed by political actors from the left of the political centre, notably the Unity List and the Socialist People’s Party (as well as a minority in the Social Democratic Party); the company-oriented instrumentality of diversity management strategies in other social sectors has allowed it to become broadly accepted.
The ordering of the three is not random. Rather, it reflects the ranking of priorities within the dominant discourse of the current ethnic regime in Denmark – as befits a programme intended to modernise a consensual polity, and restore at least a perception of cultural homogeneity to the mind of the common citizen.

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