Danes First, Welfare Last

Denmark’s Social Democrats argue that tougher migration controls are needed to defend the welfare state. But excluding immigrants is only the first step in a wider assault on the poorest Danes.

Christiansborg Palace, which houses the Danish parliament in Copenhagen, enshrouded in fog. Agent Smith / Flickr

In February 2017, Denmark’s Social-Democrat (S) leader Mette Frederiksen and Danish People’s Party (DF) leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl gave a joint interview to the trade union journal Fagbladet 3F. The meeting between the leaders of the Social Democrats and the far-right party was not only of key symbolic importance, but also represented an attempt to cooperate and find points to work on in common.

The prospect of such ties challenge Denmark’s traditional bloc politics of left against right, implying that the far-right DF could seek some limited collaboration with the center-left. The main areas for such a convergence (resisting a rise of the retirement age and social dumping) reflect a welfarist agenda especially aimed at workers, promising to reduce inequality and strengthen social cohesion. Not by chance, this meeting was arranged thanks to the trade union leader Per Christensen, whose initiative responded to his union’s strategy of building a parliamentary majority against the bill to raise the retirement age.

Yet if the two parties have come together on these issues, this also means talking about welfare in a different way. The Social Democrats admit that they have failed workers whose votes have shifted to DF, while the far-right party assumes the contradictions inherent in wanting to represent workers while at the same time supporting the neoliberal policies of the Liberal-Conservative government.

But this redefinition of welfare is also attached to migration policy — that is, the question of who the legitimate beneficiaries of redistribution are. In the name of recovering a more “social” welfare policy, the Social Democrats are at the same time harshening their stance on migrants, supporting the restrictive measures approved by the government in cooperation with the far right.


Saving the Welfare State?

Indeed, the key concern in the parliamentary discussions that have taken place since 2011 on both the Left and Right has been how to restrict immigrants’ access to welfare, especially in relation to unemployment benefits, child support and educational support. “Welfare tourism” has become a popular trope to characterize what are perceived as illegitimate claims to welfare. With its turn to the right on this question, S regards restrictions for “outsiders” as a legitimate and necessary defense of the welfare state.

For leading Social Democrat Henrik Sass Larsen, “Mass immigration — as seen in for instance Sweden — will economically and socially undermine the foundation of the welfare state.”

This can seem like a paradox. “Defending” the welfare state from “outside” abuse in principle should make it possible to maintain the existing or higher levels of welfare for native citizens. But instead, we see a general retrenchment affecting all recipients.

In reality, the government did not want to protect native citizens but to reduce public spending overall and create (what it believed to be) incentives for finding a job. For this reason, cuts hit not only immigrants and refugees but also the unemployed, students, and other potentially precarious groups.

In power from 2011-2015, S implemented cuts in educational support and the lowest social benefit for the unemployed. In essence, all those who were singled out as unproductive and a “burden” for the state were prone to cutbacks. This can be regarded as the Danish version of austerity policies and logically follows on from the introduction of workfare in the mid-1990s.

Here S stood in line with the center-right parties. The Liberal and the Conservative parties’ solutions to “welfare tourism” have involved the introduction of different accrual principles for benefits.

For instance, a welfare recipient must have lived and worked in the country for a given number of years, and non-Danish parents from EU countries are only entitled to child benefits after a certain number of years — the logic being that one has to contribute to the welfare state before being able to reap its fruits.

The generosity of welfare has been the subject of lively political discussion in Denmark, but three critical assumptions have remained unquestioned: that all citizens need to contribute, that wealth and resources should be secured, and that foreigners cannot come to the country and immediately claim social benefits.

In 2014, S itself proposed restrictions on foreigners’ rights to receive unemployment benefits, insisting that non-native citizens have to prove themselves by taking Danish classes, while also demanding tightened control of their residency in Denmark. Indeed, this is framed in terms of a narrative of strengthening integration process through economic incentives.

In the annual New Year’s Speech 2015, then-Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt proposed that refugees on benefits have to work in allocated job offers (such as cleaning beaches or doing unskilled labor in kindergartens) for a two-year period to remain eligible for this money. The rationale here was that “refugees should not become social service users.”

S would ultimately go down to defeat in the election that followed later that year. Yet since then, the party’s welfare chauvinistic tendencies have only become stronger.

The New (Old) Social Democracy

When S was in government (2011–2015) first in coalition with the social liberals (Radikale Venstre, RV) and the Greens (the Socialist People’s Party, SF, which left in 2014), Danish politics were led by Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Finance Minister Bjarne Corydon. Thorning-Schmidt was considered as representing a move away from social-democratic values and initiated a technocratic turn.

Corydon framed neoliberal policies as “the politics of necessity,” according to which technocratic decisions are the only possible ones. The government’s cutbacks on unemployment benefits or the continuous privatization as the sale of shares of Dong Energy to American investors, among others Goldman Sachs, showed this broad orientation.

Frederiksen arrived as new party leader in the face of a wider loss of social-democratic identity across Europe. Her project is, however, nothing like the left-wing turns seen in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party or even in the Portuguese Socialists. Frederiksen is aware of how Denmark’s last social-democratic administration provoked apathy as it disappointed popular expectations and seeks to reverse her party’s abandonment of a “social” agenda.

Yet she considers the loss of trust in social democracy as owing not only to its neoliberal economics but also to the party’s liberal migration policies. Her project poses the defense of the welfare state as bound up with a change of course in both regards.

In fact, Frederiksen’s anti-neoliberal credentials are unclear. If critical of the last social-democratic government’s coalition with the Social Liberals, she still makes technocratic-sounding appeals to “responsible economic politics.” And the predominant element in her rhetoric is the (almost nostalgic) return to a welfare state which aims at reducing inequality among Danes and yet also excludes migrants and refugees.

Her approach to the far-right DF must be understood as part of this move. It was common for the former DF leader, the charismatic Pia Kjærsgaard, to portray Helle Thorning-Schmidt as an elitist figure, an image which S is now keen to reverse. But beyond using the meetings with DF leaders in order to dispel this image of aloofness, there is also ground for policy overlap.

Today, the combination of less liberal economics and less liberal migration policy leads to a defense of a “nationalized welfare state” in which the far right and a significant part of social democracy can feel quite comfortable.


Class Struggle and Migration Politics

This way of talking about welfare creates a dichotomy between two options, presented as incompatible: namely, national welfare and migration. The former involves social rights. The latter implies the combination of a different culture with the development of a new underclass.

Nancy Fraser has spoken of a “progressive neoliberalism,” typified by such figures as Emmanuel Macron, which combines free-market economics with liberal social mores; and unlike other more centrist social-democratic parties around Europe, S seeks to resist this approach from the perspective of welfare chauvinism.

However, S’s critique of overly generous migration policies and the embrace of assimilationism as the best model of migrant integration have also distanced it from Denmark’s other left-wing forces. S today aspires to become more independent from the Social Liberals and their more open approach to cultural diversity, and from forces to its left who are in favor of a more humanitarian approach to the refugee question. Consequently, S seeks to cooperate with the Liberal Party (currently in government) on migration politics, without needing the support of the rest of the left-wing bloc.

Under Frederiksen’s leadership, the party has strongly developed its critique of humanitarian approaches to refugees and migrants. S’s migration spokesman Mattias Tesfaye has attacked the middle-class cultural elite and the well-educated upper class who supposedly support multicultural policies and a welcoming approach toward arrival of refugees. The Social Democrats of years past are criticized for having moved towards this class and abandoned the working and lower classes whose dissatisfaction and frustration at mounting inequality — itself driven by multiculturalism and migration — have apparently led them to vote for the far right.

Breaking with past party leaders’ rejection of any kind of cooperation with the DF, this approach tends not only to legitimize DF’s own line on migration, making it part of the political common sense, but to show the center-left’s lack of any migration policy of its own.


“A Policy on Foreigners Which Unites Denmark”

This was apparent in February 2018 as S launched its new program on immigration titled “Fair and Realistic: A Policy on Foreigners Which Unites Denmark” (Retfærdig og realistisk. En udlændingepolitik der samler Danmark). S here situates itself in the new political reality as the party sees it, insisting, “For many years the policy on foreigners has divided us Danes,” while noting that “ever more people are experiencing what happens when integration fails.”

S repeats its position from its last spell in power that “there is a limit for how many foreigners that can be integrated in Denmark.” Hostile attitudes toward multiculturalism are presented as legitimate concerns: “you are not a bad person because you don’t want to see your country being fundamentally transformed.” This “fair and realistic” policy program was launched even after the number of spontaneous asylum applications hit its lowest tally since 2008.

In 2017, 3,500 people applied for asylum in Denmark. At that time, S was also supporting the temporary stop for refugees arriving under UN quotas, again invoking the need to deal with the challenges we have before we can accept any new refugees. The two first months of 2018 had shown similarly low numbers of asylum-seekers, with less than 300 people arriving each month. At the peak of the “refugee crisis,” the Ministry of Finance estimated that the total costs of receiving refugees in 2016 amounted to 11 billion DKK (€1.47 billion). This corresponded to 0.6 percent of GDP; about 1 percent of the total public budget of 1100 billion DKK. It is difficult to see how this expenditure could undermine the welfare state.

So what did the new program offer in terms of “fair and realistic” solutions? It is full of statistics aimed a describing an immense threat to the Danish welfare state.

Graphics, for instance, tell the reader that 43 percent of Nigerians over fifteen years of age want to migrate and that the population of Africa will double before 2050. S therefore wants to stop migration before it comes to Europe — and especially Denmark, regarded as a particularly attractive destination due to its high levels of welfare services — by establishing asylum reception centers outside EU borders, as for instance in North Africa.

S proposes a limit on the number of non-Western foreigners the country can accept. According to its immigration program, demands for family reunification are to see further restrictions. Rejected asylum-seekers should be deported. Temporary border controls should be extended and Denmark should decide for itself when to terminate this and whom to accept. Access to social benefits should be achieved on the basis of the accrual of rights over time In general, refugees should be offered temporary protection and so long as they are in Denmark they should contribute.

The focus, here, is on preventive measures, deportation and repatriation. There is little in the program which could not have been proposed by the center right.

The program is inward looking and focuses mainly on the needs and concerns of the nation while it downplays humanitarian and international obligations. Yet the overall argument underpinning the program is the defense of the welfare state, claiming that only by limiting the number of foreigners and by reducing access to welfare services “can we maintain and develop the welfare state we have built up over generations.”

The program presents an exclusivist nationalized version of the Danish nation- and welfare-state. The “fair and realistic” approach in question applies to the needs of protectionism, not those of mobile populations.

And yet, this program is not in any case really about opposing the politics of DF or the government. Rather, it is a statement directed at the parties on the Left, signaling the harshening of S’s approach.

Ghetto Plans, Handshakes, and Isolated Islands

On March 1, 2018, the Liberal-Conservative government introduced its plan “One Denmark Without Parallel societies — No Ghettos in 2030” (Ét Danmark uden parallelsamfund – Ingen ghettoer i 2030), a set of twenty-two proposals purportedly designed to combat “ghettoization.” These ghettos are identified through criteria regarding residents’ income, employment status, education levels, number of criminal convictions and “non-Western background.”

The proposals include the mandatory instruction in Danish values of children living in the ghetto areas from the age of one. Noncompliance will result in the stoppage of welfare payments. Other Danish citizens can choose by themselves whether to enroll children under six in preschool or not.

Other proposals in the plan limit the rights of people living in the areas. Courts are allowed to double the punishment for certain crimes if they are committed in one of the twenty-five ghetto areas. Other proposals allow local authorities to increase their monitoring and surveillance of “ghetto” families. Some of these proposals are clearly racialized and target families with ethnic minority and/or religious backgrounds.

This plan is part of the “cultural” or “values” struggle initiated by the Liberal Party and DF in the early 2000s. However, there is also a strong class component in the plan. The proposals also include the possibility of demolishing buildings, of removing inhabitants (e.g. people without employment) to secure a “better” composition of residents, and of privatizing council estates. Hence, although the plan is racialized, the target group is not only ethnic minorities but poor people in general.

Certainly the Liberal-Conservative government’s hardline approach does not protect the welfare system, but rather attacks the very people who need it the most, in yet another strike against the undeserving poor. But emphasizing what it is sees as obligations of welfare recipients, S supported the plan without hesitation when the government brought it to parliament in November 2018.

For the Social Democrats, too, in order to receive, people first have to contribute. Solidarity is thus not articulated around oppression, inequality or the reshaping of class. but around belonging to Denmark and the Danish way of living and contributing. Abandoning an alliance that unites working people on a class basis, S thus instead produces a misplaced alliance based primarily on nationality, with the main intention of recovering the space left in recent years to the far right.

This goes in tandem with a set of harshening positions on “symbolic” issues. In August 2018, S supported a proposal from the Conservative Party stipulating that accepting handshakes should be a condition for the achievement of citizenship. The proposal is part of a strong anti-Muslim thrust found not only on the radical right but also within the center-left parties.

This and other policy initiatives were discussed as means to “test” the sentiments of Muslim citizens. Social Democrat immigration spokesperson Astrid Krag said then ‘when a female mayor offers her hand at the ceremony and says ‘congratulations on becoming a citizen,’ it is completely natural for the new citizen to return that handshake.” All members of S except one supported a law against face coverings, in principle a law against wearing the burka and niqab.

In 2000, the Social Democratic Minister of Social Affairs Karen Jespersen proposed that criminal immigrants be encamped on a desolate island. The proposal was met with sharp criticism from Jespersen’s own party members and Ministers from S (as well NGOs like Red Cross) and was blankly rejected. Such a proposal was not seen to be in line with S’s politics and left Jespersen as a controversial figure; indeed, she left the party in 2004 in protest over what she termed its weak position on migration and integration.

The party’s line was put to the test again during the 2018 annual budget negotiations, when the center-right government and DF announced an agreement to house as many as a hundred people on the tiny Lindholm Island. The people to be placed there are foreigners who have been convicted of crimes but who cannot be returned to their home countries, several of them being rejected asylum-seekers. The Minister of Integration and Immigration Inger Støjberg wrote on Facebook that “they are unwanted in Denmark, and they will feel that.”

Politicians competed with promises of making life as unbearable as possible for the people to be kept there. “We’re going to minimize the number of ferry departures as much as at all possible,” said Martin Henriksen, a spokesperson for the DF on immigration to national television.

All the opposition parties were against the proposal — except for the Social Democrats.

Their initial position was that the party had no problems in establishing such a center, and Frederiksen stated that she did not have strong opinions where this should be located. Migration spokesperson Mattias Tesfaye went further and called for concrete alternative suggestions from the opposition. In a televised debate, Tesfaye admitted that Karen Jespersen had been “spot-on” eighteen years ago. This was just the latest move in S’s drift toward a restrictionist and exclusivist policy on immigration.

Misplaced Social Democracy?

The idea of “misplaced alliances” offers a useful way to understand S’s drift to the right. And for insight into this we can look at Sardinian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s discussion of the cultural divisions between the North and South of Italy. If workers and peasants faced the same economic system of exploitation, their common interests were blurred by these cultural differences.

Peter Mayo developed this idea precisely in terms of misplaced alliances, highlighting how “autochthonous” workers ally with the dominant class since they think that they share the same interests and are opposed to immigrant workers, although they are part of a common international class.

The Danish Social Democrats’ new approach poses alliances in a similar way: to defend the national workers’ interests, it is necessary to harden immigration and integration policies. In their narrative, the responsibility for working people’s worsening conditions ultimately lies with immigrants. The role of international capital or the international (and national) ruling class goes unmentioned. It is no surprise that this position matches the one advanced in recent years by DF.

This is a wholly counter-productive approach, serving not to challenge but only to legitimize the far right. The Social Democrats have ended up directing all their fire at the supposedly “pro-migrant” cultural elite whilst the economic elite remains untouched.

And yet opposition to the excesses of neoliberalism ought to be based precisely on a defense of a wider welfarist agenda, not divided along national lines. To place Danish workers against migrants does nothing to defend the principles of social solidarity: it just sets us in a mistaken direction in which “more deportations” is set as a precondition for any discussion of welfare.

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Óscar García Agustín is an associate professor at the Department of Culture and Global Studies at Aalborg University. He is coeditor of Solidarity without Borders: Gramscian Perspectives on Migration and Civil Society and coauthor of Solidarity and the ‘Refugee Crisis’ in Europe.

Martin Bak Jørgensen is an associate professor at the Department of Culture and Global Studies at Aalborg University. He is coeditor of Solidarity without Borders: Gramscian Perspectives on Migration and Civil Society and coauthor of Solidarity and the ‘Refugee Crisis’ in Europe.

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