I have not historically been a big fan of Helle Thorning-Schmidt. When she ran for the chairmanship of the Social Democrats in 2005, I preferred her rival. When she first ran for prime minister in 2007 I thought she was visionless. And when she became prime minister in 2011, she seemed strangely unprepared.
But today – after she’s been at the helm for three years – I see a positive picture.
She has delivered where it matters: a better economy, better growth, higher employment, stronger exports and competition and better environmental policies.
The results are better than those seen elsewhere in the EU and better than those that Lars Løkke Rasmussen, her predecessor and current favourite to win the next election, delivered when he was in charge.
There was a good reason behind the fact that the prime minister was incredibly close to getting a EU top job over the summer: under her leadership, Denmark is simply doing better than most countries.
The centre-left has proven to be the prime minister’s worst enemy for the simple reason that they have spent an incredible amount of effort criticising, scolding and sulking. I myself have been guilty of this.
It’s as if the coalition of the Socialist People’s Party, the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedlisten), the labour unions, youth parties and left-wing journalists would rather see the conservative parties with the next election.
It is a time-honoured political reality that the centre-left always views the sitting Social Democrats’ party head as a fool, a visionless class traitor that should be replaced by someone else.
But why don’t the chorus of critics ever rejoice over the progress that the Social Democrats have achieved despite facing a conservative majority?
Thorning-Schmidt has repeatedly admitted that while her performance may not have always been top-notch, she would prefer to be judged on her results.
That’s a fair request and therefore it is worth documenting the truly remarkable results she has achieved:
The economy: The financial policies carried out by the government are paying off. The budgets have been so strong that Denmark now belongs among the international elite. In Standard & Poor’s credit ranking, we are among the few countries with the highest mark. Denmark has also made it through the past three years without a single challenge from the EU in regards to our debt and public spending. Things are under control.
Growth: Denmark’s overall economy is expected to grow by 1.0-1.4 percent this year. That’s better than the eurozone’s 0.8 percent forecast. Denmark has had growth for four consecutive quarters, which is remarkable considering that our two largest markets – Sweden and Germany – have seen their economies decrease. The large stimulus packages pushed through by the government have worked – and they are working better than those in most EU countries.
Employment: Unemployment has fallen from six to five percent in three years. Employment has increased by 30,000 – enough to fill Denmark’s national stadium. Denmark’s development is once again clearly among the best in Europe. The average unemployment in the eurozone, for example, is more than twice as high. Youth unemployment in Denmark is also among the lowest in the EU.
Exports: The Danish export sector is clearly moving in the right direction again. The latest figures show that we are selling a good ten percent more abroad now than in 2011. One fourth of all jobs in Denmark are dependent on exports. Therefore, Thorning-Schmidt’s cabinet has focused on easier market access. Her embassy reform doubled the efforts that diplomats use on promoting exports, so that it now accounts for 40 percent of their jobs.
Competitiveness: Two new studies show that Danish companies’ ability to compete globally are better than ever. The World Bank’s ‘Doing Business’ report ranked Denmark as the best in Europe and the fourth best in the world for the ease of running a business. In the World Economic Forum’s competitive index, we moved up to number 13. The reason? A tight fiscal policy has resulted in easier access to loans.
Public benefit payments: As a consequence of the better employment conditions, the number of Danes on public assistance has fallen by 50,000 over there years, from 840,000 in 2011 to 790,000 now. In addition to the lower unemployment, fewer people are taking early retirement. The number of student grant recipients has risen over the same period, as there are now more people receiving an education.
Equality: Two figures show that the sharp criticism over an apparent rise in inequality is just hot air. The number of poor residents, which increased unabated during the conservative government, has fallen – particularly as a result of the removal of the previous government’s poverty allowance. After many years in which the Gini coefficient, the economic model that measures inequality, was on the rise, that curve has now broken. The figures are marginal, but they show more equality.
Climate: One of the areas in which the government can be most proud of its results is the environment and climate. With the energy agreement, very ambitious goals for more sustainable consumption have been set – among them the goal that half of all electricity should could from wind. The climate agreement strengthened the already impressive Danish goals so that we are now aiming to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent in 2020 in relation to 1990 levels.
Not everything – of course – has gone well under Thorning-Schmidt.
The deterioration of the unemployment benefit system, the partial sale of DONG, the unfortunate coupling of the school reform with a government intervention in the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement, the unnecessary tax breaks for businesses, a foreign policy that has seen the government lean far too heavily on the US and a European policy that has seen the prime minister be far too defensive.
Anyone who fancies themselves a ‘political commentator’ could also easily reel off a list of strategic failures made by the government, but that is so easy that I’m going to skip it.
My point is that the expectations for Thorning-Schmidt were too high, partly of her own doing, and that the acknowledgment for her achievements has been too low. The difficult reform course is simply working.
Everyone who has written off her chances of winning the next election is forgetting to look at the results.
It was during one of Bill Clinton’s campaigns that his top advisor said that an election is always determined by how voters feel about the economy – “It’s the economy, stupid!”
That doctrine continues to apply and that’s why I think that after the next election, Denmark’s prime minister will still be Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
David Trads is a journalist and political commentator. He is the former editor-in-chief of Information and Nyhedsavisen and has been a foreign correspondent in Moscow and Washington. This column originally appeared in Politiken and has been republished with the author's permission.