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.
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.