Can Europe Make It?

Pork meatballs: Denmark’s latest bulwark against migrants

What is behind the recent wave of nationalistic "pork politics" in Denmark?

Peter Hervik Susi Meret
28 January 2016
640px-Stegt_flæsk_med_persillesovs_2.jpg

Danish pork, with potatoes and parsley sauce. Wikimedia/Nillerdk. Creative commons.

Stories about meatballs and migrants are never isolated events. Recently, the city council of Randers approved with the relative majority of votes from the Liberals and the Danish People’s Party a decision that makes it mandatory for public institutions to serve pork.

Obviously, the resolution was not prompted by the dietary concerns of the city of Randers, which is a town in the Mid-Jutland peninsula with a population of about 60 thousand people, but based on a cultural explanation. According to the Randers city council, municipal institutions must provide - by law - that the daily menu at childcare centers safeguards what is seen as a principle of Danish food culture and tradition, by compulsory including pork on a daily basis.

This measure would supposedly serve to secure what is framed in terms of the rampant cultural discrimination of the Danish pork culinary tradition in the current institutional practice, that is to say, if you listen to the rightwing populist and anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party: a trend featuring the surrender to the dictates of religious minorities in the country and specifically to Islam.

The scarcity of pork on our children’s plate is thus seen to epitomize the ‘banning of Danish food culture’ from the Dane’s dining room. Yet, representatives of the Randers municipality hastened to explain that their decision was not to force anybody to eat anything that ‘goes against one’s belief or religion’, but rather a necessary motion to safeguard the cultural heritage of Danish gastronomic costumes. After all, isn’t Danish roasted pork with parsley sauce nominated as Denmark’s official national dish? This event however was decided in a voting scheme where only 1.15 pct. of the Danes participated, and only 40 pct of them voted for the pork dish.

Soon after the city council’s vote, press coverage revealed that Randers’ contentious ‘put pork on fork’ decision was reluctantly approved by the members of the Liberal party to appease the Danish People’s Party council fellows in barter-like exchange for another proposal coming from the Liberals, namely the establishing of a windmill ‘park’ consisting of five enormous 130 mt. high windmills in the neighborhood pitch of Binderup.

A project dear to the local Liberals and particularly to the local chairman of the party constituency, who happens to be among the main contractors and who had been fighting against the aversion of the local community and the reluctance of the local Danish People’s Party. Hence the parties just found a steal of a deal: pork for windmills. Several of the Liberals did not personally support the pork-decision, while several Danish People’s Party members were against building the windmills.

This is a case of do ut des or ‘something for something’ politics in practice, entailing a commutative contract whereby something is given so that something is received in return. Simple, but also an illustration of the gift-politics approach inaugurated back in the 2001, which has become rather widespread and characteristic of the political liaison and decision making between the DPP and the bourgeois parties that lent its support to govern. Not to forget it was with the votes of the DPP that the centre-rightwing government was given the necessary majority at parliament in 2001, then in 2005, 2007 and again at the last 2015 June elections, after four years of center-left interregnum.

Differently from other radical rightwing populist parties, the Danish People’s Party never asked, nor required to be directly involved in the partnership for the governing coalition. On the contrary, also after last elections, where the party got 21.1 per cent of the votes and became the second largest force in parliament, the DPP showed not to be eager to get involved in government; this despite the concrete attempts by the Liberals to coax the party into a coalition.

Again, the DPP leadership opted to wield the party’s influence from the sidelines and to uphold the Liberals on a vote-by-vote basis. This inside but outside role has from start turned into a comfortable and advantageous business for the country’s anti-immigrant and populist right: from this position the DPP yields political results by pressuring the parties at government, while remaining untainted by decisions that could be unpopular and damaging to the anti-establishment and national patriotic image the DPP foster.

Thus, the DPP can still argue that the party vote does not go ‘automatically for the politics of the government’, unless these are ‘the right politics for Denmark’, but most for the party, of course. This rationale also established a win-win practice, according to which the DPP can keep safe distance to the endorsement of bourgeois policies that curtails the welfare state and expect its yes-vote to be honored with something in return.

Often, the gift-politics reciprocity has been awarded by harsher exclusionary migration laws, the worsening of asylum conditions, the tightening of citizenship rules, the curtailing of welfare provisions and help to refugees, the implementation of border controls (such as back in 2011). Migration and asylum politics have thus been taken hostage in this politics of the bargaining that often does not find the back up of large parts of the Danish electorate, whose positions and attitudes towards migration are more nuanced and much less clear-cut than what we have seen proposed and approved by the Danish political parties in the past decades.

As electoral surveys indicate, voters have over the years shown disagreement with the obstinate curbing down of welfare state benefits to refugees and migrants, which triggers and expands economic and social inequality. Also, voters showed to support the role of Denmark for a common EU asylum policy. Nevertheless, negative, exclusionary and racialised positions on migration and on people on the move have become hegemonic, sanctioned by parties vying for a bunch more votes at next election. A competition for the hardest-hitting and toughest on migration issues, with a strong winner: the DPP.

If back in 2001, the DPP was unshackled from the margins by a mainstream seeking to facilitate the formation of a rightwing government, today it is the party culturalisation and racialisation of social and economic inequality that is going mainstream.

Cultural diversity is framed as one of the main challenges in our contemporary societies, triggering socioeconomic tensions, provoking conflicts and prompting nationalist responses. Culturally based discourses have replaced older on race – an approach no longer seen as legitimate. How else to describe the welcoming of new Danish citiziens by serving a portion of the celebrated Danish roasted pork? 

However some years ago, former PM Helle Thorning Schmidt also delivered a press conference on her version of the ‘pork meatball war’ by warning against the practice of some public institutions to prefer serving halal meat and opt pork dishes out.

A statement narrowly supported by evidence and quickly stamped as ‘symbolic’ politics. But what is this representation of the pork meatball war if not a way to serve  inequality and discrimination under the name of cultural and religious difference? 

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