Why Denmark cares more than you think

Denmark has been on the end of some bad press recently, due in no small part to the loud voices of aggressive politicians and concerned citizens. But The Local's Michael Barrett argues that if you take a closer look – it’s not as bad as you think, even if you’re not a Dane.

Why Denmark cares more than you think
There is plenty to appreciate in Denmark - and not just the windmills. Photo: runtnikqueen/Flickr

Earlier this month, blogger Søren Kenner wrote at length on the current state of Danish politics, culture and society. For Kenner, Denmark no longer resembles the country he loved when he was a young man. If one dares to complain about Denmark, he says, they will be reminded that it is the ‘world’s happiest country.’

I would contend that most Danes see the ‘world’s happiest country’ claim for what it really is – a tired and meaningless cliché. All the same, the reality is not as bad as the bleak portrait set out by Kenner.

In his article, Kenner reels off a list of current affairs stories that, in his view, reflect today’s Denmark – and presumably would never have happened during the unspecified golden age of modern Danish history to which he nostalgically refers.

See also: 'Denmark is no longer the country I loved'

Strict visa rules that have resulted in the deportation of hard working students are contrasted with the case of an underworld crime boss from Croatia, whose family has been in the country for 42 years. The latter case has been referred to the Supreme Court, which has so far has not deported the criminal ringleader from Denmark – despite overwhelming public support for this. The two cases are patently different in nature.

Kenner mocks the ‘left-wing’ criticism of recent government reforms reducing the cost of buying large cars without offering any kind of counter argument. Indeed, the obvious argument for reducing tax on cars – and the one put forward by the government itself – is to stimulate growth, which Kenner claims to be ‘dead as a stone’. In fact, the economy saw growth in 2015, albeit less than the optimistic predictions of politicians.

A lack of funding for hospitals is compared to media grants in order to support the argument that state funds are being wasted. Everyone – from the country’s tax authority to the media to absurd, but ultimately inconsequential decisions by local authorities – are on the receiving end of Kenner’s wrath in what has been described as an ‘epic rant’. I see it as more of a long-winded moan.

It is not my aim to list Kenner’s grievances one-by-one and attempt to debunk them all – to do that would serve no other purpose than to pour more negative fuel on to the fire of pessimism.

Even if I did, there are some genuine reasons for concern and Kenner succeeds in pointing them out – one such example being the problematic and controversial Freedom of Information Law (Offentlighedsloven) which enables politicians to censor records from the public with far greater impunity than in any other country. The Danish media recently revealed that the new law is already being used enthusiastically by Denmark’s MPs. This is a clear democratic problem in what is often declared the least corrupt nation in the world

References to the challenges faced by Denmark in dealing with the refugee crisis are, of course, also entirely valid.

Local municipalities are struggling to deal with the strain of having to house refugees. The central government however seems less concerned about this than projecting what they see as a hardline image to the voters they believe will keep them in power. The result is under-funded municipalities, outrageous policies that do not tackle practical problems and a distorted perception of the refugees themselves. There is a chasm in public opinion on the best way to cope with the refugee flow, which, as Kenner himself says, Denmark is powerless to stop, at least for the time being.

It is clear, then, that Denmark faces challenges, economically, socially and politically. But listing these challenges along with a number of poor individual decisions and opinions you don’t agree with will not make them go away. Engagement with some of them might help, though.

Denmark still has democracy and a free press – these can be used to fight for improvements. The Freedom of Information Law can be fought against by supporting politicians who oppose it.

The country’s taxes are the highest in the world – but university education up to postgraduate level is still paid for by state coffers and public healthcare is still available for everyone.

Despite its ridicule at the recent COP21 climate conference – after which, incidentally, the government made positive changes to its green policies – Denmark is still a world leader in sustainable energy, with the island of Samsø set to become the world’s first fossil fuel-free community.

Despite the belligerent rhetoric and shock-tactic policies of politicians like Inger Støjberg, and recent sweeping cuts to the welfare provided, Denmark has taken in a significant number of refugees, many of whom now speak Danish and are finding work or applying for higher education.

And civil society can – and does, to an overwhelming and heartwarming extent – help refugees and other vulnerable people when government funding and policy leaves them out in the cold. It is this kind of contact with the outside world that will help Danes to see through the gloom that is presented to them through their computer and mobile phone screens, and to recognise the goodwill that is still there.

It may be winter, and the international as well as domestic political climate may be cold, dark and harsh – but dismissing Denmark as ‘no longer the country it once was’ is reductive and evident of a worrying lack of faith in a country that is supposed to have been so great in the recent past.

To give him his dues, Kenner is not entirely negative. He admits, with more than a hint of irony, that ‘all those windmills sure do look nice’. Perhaps that’s a matter of opinion. But if you think they do look nice, then it would do no harm to appreciate them.

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OPINION: If you can’t go home for Christmas, Denmark is a good place to be

After missing out on seeing his family for Christmas 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Local Denmark editor Michael Barrett got to try out Danish Christmas for the first time.

A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve.
A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve. File photo: Vibeke Toft/Ritzau Scanpix

We’d always planned to spend last Christmas in the UK. My daughter was born in March 2020, coinciding with the outset of the global coronavirus pandemic but, as worrying and uncertain as everything was at the time, we were sure it would have all settled down in nine months’ time. We started planning for her to spend her first Christmas with her grandparents, cousin and the rest of our extended family in England.

As we all know, this was far from how things turned out. The autumn and winter of last year saw spiralling Covid-19 cases across Europe and countries responding by introducing more and more restrictions, including on travel.

I’m not sure exactly when we conceded we’d have to cancel our plans to go to the UK for Christmas in 2020, but I do remember the look of resignation on my parents’ faces when I let them know. The writing had already been on the wall for a while by then.

Visiting my partner’s mother in December, I looked out of the window at the greying skies over Jutland, the dim lights of a distant Føtex store and the limp red and white pendants on flag poles as bare as the trees, and nothing felt familiar.

This was because, despite having lived in Denmark for almost a decade and a half, I’d never spent Christmas in the country. Every year I’d head home by the 22nd or 23rd, usually returning just before New Year to enjoy the rowdy firework displays in Aarhus or Copenhagen after a week of putting my feet up and savouring the familiarity and comfort of Christmas at home.

Denmark famously has its own Christmas traditions, comparable but certainly different to the British ones. I knew about them – I’ve exchanged information about national Christmas customs with many Danes over the years – but never witnessed them first-hand.

The big day came around quickly, not least because it all happens on the 24th, not the 25th.

Festivities did take a while to get going, though. Not until 4pm in fact, when ancient Disney Christmas special From All of Us to All of You, known in Danish as Disneys juleshow began on main TV broadcaster DR. Usually I’d have been watching an early-1980s David Bowie introducing The Snowman around now. A cup of warm gløgg (spiced red wine with raisins and almonds) was thrust into my hand, and I missed Bowie a little bit less.

After a couple more glasses of gløgg and wine, we sat down for Christmas dinner: roast duck, brown potatoes, boiled potatoes, gravy and red cabbage. It was of course already dark and a prolific number of candles were lit on the table and around the room, adding to the festive feeling of the star-topped tree, paper hearts and other decorations.

For dessert, we had risalamande, the popular cold rice sweet mixed with whipped cream, vanilla and chopped almonds and served with cherry sauce. By tradition, one whole almond is left in the dessert and whoever finds it wins a present, which is customarily a julegris, a chocolate pig with marzipan filling. This game is often fixed so that a child (or children) wins the prize, but the only child present was a nine-month-old and I ended up finding the almond in my bowl.

Then it was time to dance around the tree and exchange presents. Most of us had too much dessert, so it was a more sedate affair than I expected. After the little one was fast asleep we sat back on the sofas and had a couple more glasses of wine or maybe a few snacks.

It was all over before Santa traditionally lands his sleigh on rooftops and hops down British chimneys in the small hours of Christmas morning.

Danish families with young children often assign someone to dress up as Father Christmas and come round to deliver the presents to excited youngsters before dinner on Christmas Eve.

Maybe I’ll get the chance to audition for the role next year because our Danish-British family will be in Denmark every other Christmas for the foreseeable future – by choice, not restriction. I’m looking forward to it, because my first Danish Christmas gave me a better understanding of why this time of year is loved by so many Danes.

READ ALSO: My five favourite Danish childhood Christmas memories