Cevea is gelieerd aan de Deense sociaaldemocratische partij. We spreken met Kristian Weise over de manier waarop het land is omgegaan met de instroom van vluchtelingen. Tevens spreken we over het politieke landschap in Denemarken.

Kristian Weise
Directeur van de sociaaldemocratische denktank Cevea
26 februari 2016

The social democratic dilemma

‘Denmark welcomed economic refugees from the late 1950s on, inviting them to come and work in the country as guest workers. Contrary to what was expected, they stayed in the country, and in the 1980s the number of immigrants started to become more substantial. Certain parts of Copenhagen started having a bigger percentage of immigrants, and also bigger social and housing problems.

The Social Democrats wanted to be the human party that didn’t accept anything that could look racist or xenophobic. For the first fifteen years it was the official policy to say that it wasn’t a problem, it can be helped. Then in 1995 the Danish People’s Party was established and xenophobic, anti-immigration policies started to become popular. So when the Social Democrats lost the 2001 elections and the following ones, they felt like they lost on the question of immigration.

We do think having an official right-wing party has helped. It’s better to have an official populist party, which lets of the steam on these issues than when it is totally unacceptable to say anything even slightly right-winged in politics. Then what you see is extreme right-wing reactions in society.

From left to right

The narrative of the sustainability of the welfare state has been very persuasive. The left, particularly the Social Democrats, have taken a turn towards the right. People who would usually be on the left side of the party on economic issues, are now on what would preciously have been considered the right side of immigration policies. The Social Democrats have changed a lot over the last 15 years, but particularly since the refugee spike in 20015 they have said things no one ever thought they would say.

Last autumn some of the leading figures of the party came out and said: “Immigration, whether its refugees or in another way, is a threat to our society. It is a threat to our welfare state and a threat to our social coherence. There is a limit to how many people with another culture, another religion can fit in.”

It has been the strategy of the Social Democrats to say, if we lose voters to the left at least they will still vote for parties that are more to the left. What we are trying to do is win voters who have moved to the right. But still, there is a very clear distinction between the Social Democrats and the Danish People’s Party when it comes to immigration policies.

The Social Democratic party says that once you have a residence permit you need to have the same social rights, the same treatment as native Danes. That is a very clear distinction, because both the Danish People’s Party and the governing party have made a difference between Danes and immigrants in policies, so that they get lower benefits. The Social Democrats want to make sure that we can integrate them in a good way.'

Grassroots movements

‘You actually see a lot of grassroots movements in Denmark as a reaction, saying if the state is not going to take care of the refugees then the people will. One of the biggest social movements we have in Denmark right now is called ‘Venligboerne', which means ‘friendly neighbours’. It started in the summer when there was a big influx of refugees and police was refusing to let them go to Sweden, where they wanted to go. Many citizens wanted to help these refugees reach Sweden. So they went to the border, offered them a place in their cars and drove them to the Swedish border.

It is truly a grassroots movement, I wouldn’t even know who started it. But it has grown incredibly, the movement has about 150.000 members of its online groups. It’s a counter story to all the negative news. The situation as it was, and the political establishment all taking the same position, led to civil society taking over and organizing themselves in big numbers. Most people weren’t even involved in political issues, they are both left and right.’


‘One problem is that no one really has the facts. Cevea did a study on the economic consequences of the refugees. We concluded that if you look at the age composition of the refugees coming to Denmark, they have exactly the right working age. The Danish population in that age group is actually shrinking, so we have a necessity for people of that age.

We received a lot of comments on that study. People saying that only 7% have the right education while others say only 15%. Then last week they said that there were 400 engineers in the asylum centres. So no one really knows. But the overall message is that none of them are ready to be included in the Danish labour market straight away.

We have had good and bad experiences with the integration of refugee groups, but integration policies have been improving. In the beginning the government had a laissez-fair approach, then they realised it was an actual job. When the first wave of invited guest workers came, the idea was that they would only stay and work for a couple of years.

They could live in barracks and didn’t need to learn the language because they would go home anyway. But they ended up staying and at that point it was more difficult to integrate theme. So since the 90’s we have had more regulations and rules on integration saying, you have to learn Danish, have labour market skills, etc.

Social issues

We still have problems of social issues and poverty with ethnic groups. Basically, the housing policies have been wrong. The reasons why immigrants live in certain parts of the city or country is because that is where you have social housing. If you have a high concentration of people who don’t have Danish as their native language, and  who are not completely integrated, there will be challenges.

On one hand it does cost something to take in refugees and integrate them successfully, but it’s still only a very small amount of money. It’s less than 1% of our state budget that we are using for integration.

There is a discussion on how can we counter religious extremism without pushing more Muslims in that extremist direction. After the terror attacks in 2015, the government put more money on  national security. But most of the money has been used for hard measures, meaning more police, more intelligence.

Experts on this issue are coming out saying that this will not make the difference. You need to spend money on soft measures as well to make sure that 14-20 year olds don’t get inspired by Muslim extremism. But the politicians choose hard measures because it is much more symbolic to say we have spent this much on police and surveillance.’

The sustainability of the welfare state

‘Some people say that even the numbers now are dangerous for Denmark and the welfare state. It’s logical, of course numbers matter. If we take in 20.000 refugees a year: with family reunification that will be twice as much. Which means that within three years we will have 100.000 people in Denmark who don’t have the right educational level, don’t speak the language and who will be unemployed and then be on unemployment benefits.

We understand that welfare states are national. There is a national aspect to the welfare state, but it’s very dangerous if those nationalistic sentiments drive up within your population. It’s a core believe of the Social Democrats that that if you are in the country, that you should not end up in poverty. But what comes with that argument is a need to limit the numbers.

Although the Social Democrats moved to the right, it was a move with a social conscience. We can only help out 10.000 or 20.000 people a year, because we want to give them good conditions. We don’t want 80.000 if the consequence is that they will be begging on the street, go into crime or will accept half of the normal wages.’

Employment rate

‘One of the independent economic advisors of the government explained the effect of immigration on the welfare state like this: he said that in order to sustain the Danish welfare state we need to have an employment rate of 75% in the working age population in Denmark. Meaning three out of four people, men and women, living in this country need to work.

As long as refugees and other immigrants have a lower employment rate than that, there is a limit to how many people we can take in for the welfare state to be sustainable. So every migrant group also needs to have a 75% employment rate.

There is a question on how quick this has to happen. It’s impossible to expect all refugees to have the same employment ratio within three years. Some will have war trauma’s, etc. But if at one point we have a group with a lower than 75% employment rate, then that would create high costs. Unless the rest of the population has a higher one. So there are a lot of discussion on how to get ethnic groups into the labour market.’

European solution

‘In Denmark there is a general consensus that the policies on immigration control have to be decided nationally. The European Union should not be able to decide on its own. The European Union just hasn’t delivered a clear solution and hasn’t done enough. Therefor it is not valuable to any solutions according to the Social Democrats and so we need to have an opt in opt out position.

So the position of Denmark has been to say “yes” to voluntary help and financial support and to take some of the quota refugees. But we will not be a 100% part of the deal and lose our self-determination. We reinstated border control with our German border. While with Schengen we didn’t have controls for 10-15 years and the Scandinavian borders have been open for about 60 years. It has had an symbolic effect, the closing of the borders.’

Gesprek gevoerd op vrijdag 26 februari 2016.
Foto: Werry Crone