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Danish report
by Euro Reporter
2014-06-20 09:20:24
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 First ‘Grand Mosque’ opens in Denmark

Thanks to some 20 million euros from Qatar, Denmark’s Muslims have their first ‘Grand Mosque’, complete with a minaret. Dubbed Scandinavia’s biggest ‘real’ mosque, the vast complex in Copenhagen also houses a community centre and other facilities.

Nine years ago, a Danish newspaper outraged Muslims by publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The most famous depicted him wearing a bomb in his turban.

The images triggered riots in Muslim countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia in 2006 in which at least 50 people died. Many Muslims consider any depiction of the Prophet to be offensive.


Free universities and no student loan debt is hurting Denmark's economy

No tuition fees and generous grants give young Danes an opportunity that would make most green with envy -- a university education without a massive debt yoke. But many, in both industry and politics, feel it's become a free lunch that's giving indigestion to Scandinavia's already weakest economy. Too many pursue "fulfilment" and too few the science and engineering degrees needed in well-paid growth sectors critical for the nation's future, they say. Typical is 23-year-old Ali Badreldin, who is enrolled at the Royal Danish Academy of Music to become a saxophone player. "Music was always part of my life growing up so it was a natural choice," he said. His courses are free and he gets a monthly stipend of 5,839 DKK (782 euros, $1,074) in a system where class sizes are rarely limited. The result has Denmark spending more proportionally on education than any other country in the OECD club of 34 advanced nations. Yet biotech firms like Novozymes say they cannot find enough engineers.

Engineering opportunities have soared in recent years in Denmark, but its youth have shunned the sector, with only one-third the OECD average contemplating an engineering career amid top-heavy enrolment in arts and humanities programmes. Novozymes, along with toymaker Lego and healthcare products manufacturer Coloplast, felt it was time to hit back with a major advertising campaign to woo students. "Many young people want a meaningful job, and I think we need to become better at explaining the difference engineers are making," said Novozymes human resources director Michael Almer. Conservative critics, meanwhile, say all is too easy in a cradle-to-grave welfare state where youth unemployment, at 14 percent, is noticeably lower than the EU average of 22.8 percent, according to Eurostat. They point to "Lazy Robert", or Robert Nielsen, an erstwhile student of social sciences, philosophy and Chinese, now 45, who shot to notoriety after proudly stating on TV that he prefers living off social benefits than taking a job he didn't find "meaningful". For Mads Lundby Hansen, an economist at free market-leaning think tank CEPOS, students should pay at least part of their studies. "My advice is to introduce a limited tuition fee because it would make young people consider what kind of job and salary they will get. You begin to think about education more like an investment," he told AFP.

Countries like Britain have used the financial crisis to justify tuition fee hikes, but talk of even nominal fees has proven a political hot potato in Denmark. Last year, Venstre, the largest opposition party, was roundly accused by the ruling Social Democrats of "gambling with the welfare and equality ... we have built up over generations" when they suggested a school fee proposal, which was promptly killed. As the debate heats up, Danish universities have pledged to reduce admission to fields where unemployment among graduates is high. Not all agree. "The problem is not as serious as some people would have it," said Palle Rasmussen, a professor of education and learning research at Aalborg University. "If there are some courses that don't lead to jobs, students will eventually avoid them," he said, arguing that unemployment benefits are no longer as cushy as they once were in Denmark. Overall, only 48 percent of Danish graduates end up working in the private sector, compared with an EU average of 60 percent.

Some say only major change, both fiscal and ideological, will encourage more students towards well-paid growth sectors. With one of the highest tax rates in the world -- at 56 percent for top earners -- big salaries mean mostly bigger taxes to sustain the welfare state. Many young Danes just don't see the point of putting in years of effort into studying for a bigger salary eaten up by taxes. Others, like music student Ali, remain convinced that all will work out if they follow their dream. "If you study something you are passionate about you have a greater chance of making a living from it later," he said.


Denmark votes to defend meatballs – via party with the ordinary voice

It may have shaken Denmark's political establishment to its roots, but the scale of the Danish People's Party's (DPP) victory in last weekend's European elections did not much surprise Mikkel Dencker. "Well, maybe a bit," he conceded. "I knew we would do well, the polls said so. But I'm naturally a pessimistic person, I suppose, so I didn't really believe them. I should have known better. This is a big moment." On the well-kept streets of Hvidovre, a working-class suburb of Copenhagen barely 10 minutes by train from the central station, there are plenty who agree with Dencker, a local MP and now deputy mayor of a town council previously dominated by the centre-left Social Democrats. Just over 35% of Hvidovre's voters cast their ballot for the DPP in the European poll, which saw the rightwing party, derided by many in the mainstream as scaremongering, populist upstarts, seize a record 26.6% of the national vote and win four of Denmark's 13 seats in the European parliament. Its MEPs will now join an influx of some 230 similar insurgents from all corners of the EU, ranging from the far-right to the radical left and from moderate euro-critical to outright Europhobes. But in Hvidovre, at least, the vote seems to have been about rather more than Europe.

"It's plain why people vote DPP," said Henrik Kristiansen, 46, a delivery driver, outside the Victoria cafe. "The rest are just politicians. Do you really believe them? I don't." Mette Lindhard, a nursing assistant, said the party "does really seem to care about ordinary people. With the others, it's always just about numbers, and excuses." Commentators see the DPP's triumph – the party pushed the Social Democrats of prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, riding high on 32.6% of the vote as recently as 2004, down to just 19% in the poll, and Venstre, the leading rightwing party, to below 17% – as indicative of a deeper crisis of traditional politics, with echoes across Europe. "I don't actually think people voted for the DPP as a response to anything to do with the European parliament," said Kasper Fogh, a long-time Social Democrat spin doctor who now help promotes Nordic cuisine. "I think they were going to vote for the DPP, period. The sad fact, speaking as a lifelong Social Democrat, is this: we no longer represent the people we claim to represent. There's a disconnect between voters and the political class." At fault, Fogh said, is partly a system that produces "young politicians, very bright, very decent, very able – but political science or law graduates who've shaped their lives into becoming politicians, and who represent no one. If you want to represent the working class, you know, it might help to have a few people who've actually worked." It is an alienation from career politicians perceived as at best out-of-touch and at worst self-serving or corrupt that was also reflected, on the right, in record support for Marine Le Pen's Front National in France and Ukip in Britain, and on the left in countries such as Greece, where the anti-austerity radicals of Syriza topped the poll, and Spain, where a 100-day-old citizen's party, Podemos, captured five seats.

That popular detachment is aggravated in Denmark and elsewhere, Fogh said, by the traditional parties of the right and left pursuing "almost the same policies. Here, there are heated rows about whether the public sector should be frozen, or grow by 0.5% over 15 years. That's it. This is now the fault line. How many people feel that discussion is relevant to them?" Denmark's insurgents emerged from an anti-tax protest movement in 1995, led by a former home-care visitor, Pia Kjaersgaard. A pioneer of a phenomenon now evident across Europe, she has gradually transformed a collection of oddballs, outcasts and racists into a political force seen as both broadly acceptable (though several, including the party's lead European election candidate, Morten Messerschmidt, have been in trouble over racist remarks) and disciplined enough to prop up Denmark's rightwing government for a decade until 2011. Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, said Kristian Weise of the centre-left think tank Cevea, the DPP's focus was "very much on immigration; they were the anti-immigration party". In return for its parliamentary support for Denmark's former right-wing government, the DPP forced a tightening of immigration laws that had allowed thousand of people from countries such as Iran, Iraq and the Balkans to settle in the 1980s and 1990s. But since the financial crisis of 2008, Weise said, the DPP's attention has switched more "to people's economic fears and concerns". Although at around 7%, unemployment in Denmark has never reached anything remotely like the levels seen in southern Europe, "people are worried now, about jobs, retirement, their children's future – and to them, the DPP just looks like the only party that listens and understands."

Their policies may be "incoherent", Weise said, with assorted spending promises adding up to maybe 8% of Denmark's GDP, "but people don't vote on rational calculations. The DPP are hard-working, and on many of the post-crisis public debates they've sounded more like a progressive socialist party, standing up for the people – while the Social Democrats have sounded technocratic, like financial markets matter more than people. They just haven't connected. And the DPP are now very close to being the largest working-class party in Denmark." Which is not to say, warns Marlene Wind, professor of European politics at the University of Copenhagen, that the EU was absent from the Danish MEP European election debate. Like Britain – with whom it joined the then EEC in 1973 – a reluctant member of anything more than a common market, the Nordic country famously voted against the Maastricht treaty, retains its own currency and has opt-outs in other areas. "Danes are pragmatic, really," Wind said. "A majority still want to stay in the EU. We've had it pretty easy through the crisis, and studies show foreign workers have contributed far more to the economy than they have cost. But there's now an overriding feeling that elites are bad, the people are good. And Brussels is the elite of elites." Two issues played into the hands of the DPP's "More Denmark, less EU" message: a ruling by the European Court of Justice that EU students with jobs in Denmark were entitled to generous Danish study grants, and – just as in Britain – the revelation that Polish and other east European workers were able to claim Danish child benefit and send it home.

Mads Brandstrup, political editor at financial news daily Borsen, said if a large part of the DPP vote was down to "the aftermath of the economic crisis, a real anti-establishment backlash", there was a risk that unless the mainstream parties "start taking the problems of real people seriously" they may not regain their former unquestioned dominance. "It's a question of trust, really," he said. "People feel the DPP are more like them, they speak their language. They have MPs who are ex-motorbike salesmen, construction workers, healthcare workers. They don't talk down to voters. And they've been very smart with small, precise economic policies that benefit their voters specifically – like an extra cheque for pensioners." Back in Hrvidovre, deputy mayor Dencker is particularly proud of a resolution the DPP group has pushed through council ensuring that, from now on, "only Danish food, traditional Danish food," will be served in local creches, schools, hospitals and old people's homes: "Including pork meatballs, which some local councils have banned. People here don't want that." Nursing a bank holiday morning coffee, though, the former spin doctor Fogh despairs. "Look," he says, "the only serious problems Denmark faces now are the kind it can't solve alone: climate change, global issues. "Can the EU sort those? It can't even sort a parliament that shuttles between Brussels and Strasbourg. It does mobile phone tariffs. It needs to change. But we need a supranational European body, and we're turning our backs on the only one we've got. It's not looking promising."


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