When I am not thinking up earth shattering columns for The Local, one of my other jobs is as Copenhagen correspondent for Monocle magazine. A couple of days ago, they asked if I could contribute something to the next issue about Nordic politicians to look out for in 2015: could I recommend a Danish politician who was in some way interesting or admirable, and on the rise?
I drew a blank. I could not think of a single one who was worthy of a couple of hundred words of praise.
Like many in Denmark – even those who never vote for her – I quite admire Margrethe Vestager; she seems sensible and moderate, I like the cut of her jib, but now she has headed off to Brussels. Technically she remains Danish, but that wasn’t the editorial brief.
The foreign minister, Martin Lidegaard, is slick enough but has done little since he took up the post apart from agreeing to bomb Iraq again and occasionally provoking the Israelis. What about the party leaders? PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt appears to be on a downward arc, and as for Venstre's Lars Løkke Rasmussen – has there ever been a more feeble PM-in-waiting? I have met Anders Samuelsen, the leader of the Liberal Alliance, the only party that is seriously talking about reducing Danish income tax, a couple of times, and like him. But the few others from his party that I've met reminded me a bit of an am-dram production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Let’s see: any other prominent names? Brian Mikkelsen, whose career has for the last decade or so been built on agreeing with everyone and saying precisely nothing? Or Dan Jørgensen, the agriculture minister who fiddles while the processed meat industry burns? Venstre’s Inger Støjberg, perhaps, who suggested that Danish immigrants be screened by their religion (with Muslims filtered out at the border)? I won’t even dignify that with an answer.
Sadly, of course, the real politician to watch in Denmark next year is going to be the Danish People's Party leader, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, who could even conceivably have a tilt at the prime minister’s job. But a fear-mongering, xenophobic reactionary is not what my editor had in mind, I suspect.
Sadly, it seems that these days we have to look elsewhere for leadership in Denmark. The Confederation of Danish Industry (Dansk Industri), for example. Last week at their annual meeting, they discussed immigration, among other topics. The organisation’s head, Karsten Dybvad, made a speech in which he pleaded for Denmark to open up to foreign workers. They "lift Denmark up", he said and, as the country emerges from the economic crisis, they be will needed even more than ever. Showing that they remain tone deaf, the government responded by once again implying most foreigners are here to suck the public teat.
Far from coming to Denmark to take advantage of the country’s generous welfare system – as those on the right, including supposedly ‘mainstream’ Venstre – claim, most immigrants were coming here to work, Dybvad said. In doing so they play a vital role in keeping the Danish economy afloat – contributing an 85 billion kroner net gain, in fact. What’s more, the contribution to the Danish economy from foreign workers happens across the range of employment, from the oft-mentioned “strawberry-pickers”, to top university lecturers, molecular chemists and medical researchers (I’ve met foreign workers in all three of those fields here in Denmark in the last week).
The myth that the right wingers propagate about foreigners taking jobs from Danes, the spurious claims that they undercut them on wages or conditions, is just that: a myth. They either do the kind of jobs that Danes baulk at, or fill the skills shortage that the indigenous population simply can not meet.
Dansk Industri is recommending that red tape be cut to allow Danish companies to import many more foreign workers, that Danish companies and institutions get better at recognising qualifications from countries that are the equal to Denmark, and that more and cheaper international schools be founded to make Denmark more attractive to these workers. Currently, Denmark is 17th on the OECD’s list of countries that are successful at attracting foreign talent. For a country with so few natural resources, that’s perilously low. Talent is what fuels the Danish economy.
The DI’s proposals are just the start. But to implement them will probably require a very different calibre of Danish politician than currently resides in Christiansborg.
Michael Booth is the author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle available now on Amazon and is a regular contributor to publications including the Guardian and Monocle