Refugees to childcare: Five issues that could thwart talks to form Danish government

Negotiations between Social Democrat leader Mette Frederiksen and left wing allies over their terms of support for backing her as the next prime minister are ongoing. What issues are likely to provide the biggest obstacles?

Refugees to childcare: Five issues that could thwart talks to form Danish government
Pernille Skipper of the Red Green Alliance arriving for negotiations at Christiansborg on Wednesday. Photo: Philip Davali / Ritzau Scanpix

On Tuesday, leader of the Red Green Alliance Pernille Skipper said that she “did not have the solution” for an alternative plan to accommodate foreign nationals convicted of crimes and sentenced to deportation.

The current plan, passed by the outgoing government, provides for a facility on the island of Lindholm. The move was controversial for its high cost to the Danish state and symbolic message – Lindholm is an uninhabited island.

But businesses and members of the public in the area near Kærshovedgård, where the individuals are currently accommodated together with rejected asylum seekers who have not committed any crime, have expressed feelings of insecurity, with one incident of assault and several of petty theft reported.

“Our approach is that it is not easy to resolve the situation regarding Lindholm, but one thing is certain: it’s a bad idea to keep (convicted foreign nationals) on a deserted island,” Skipper told Ritzau.

The three other parties in the traditional ‘red bloc' on the left of the Danish parliament — the Social Liberals, Socialist People's Party (SF) and Red Green Alliance – are crucial to forming the new government, because it is the left-wing parties who must vote to confirm Frederiksen as prime minister in a Social Democrat minority administration.

That means these parties can demand policy concessions from Frederiksen in the negotiations – hence the emergence of divisive, specific issues like Lindholm as obstacles in the talks.

Here are four further areas that are potential roadblocks to a new government.

Quota refugees

Since 2016, Denmark has refused to accept quota refugees from UN camps in areas close to conflict zones. The Social Liberals and SF both want to reverse that policy such that Denmark resumes taking in 500 quota refugees annually from this year.

The Social Democrats have not dismissed taking in quota refugees again and have in fact said they would accept UN refugees with particular needs, such as people with disabilities. No agreement on numbers has been confirmed between the parties at the time of writing.

The ‘paradigm shift’ law

Passed in February by the outgoing government – with the support of the Social Democrats – the paradigm shift moved Denmark’s official policy on refugees from integration to future repatriation including of UN quota refugees and others who do not have permanent status.

This could cause issues for Frederiksen, particularly with the Social Liberals, whose leader Morten Østergaard has demanded the policies be rolled back.

Staff-child ratios at childcare facilities

Earlier this year, parents demonstrated en masse for state investment in Denmark’s municipal childcare facilities, such that a minimum ratio of staff to children could be guaranteed at kindergartens and nurseries.

While Frederiksen has said she is prepared spend on the area, she has stopped short of guaranteeing ratios, saying  improvements are also needed elsewhere.

But SF leader Pia Olsen Dyhr looks likely to press hard over the issue, which has proved to be one which has leverage with a large segment of the electorate.

Social welfare

Successive governments have reduced the amounts individuals can receive in social welfare, notably an upper limit on the amount a household can be entitled to (kontanthjælpsloftet), and a rule which states that after one year of unemployment, an individual must have worked 225 hours within the last three years in order to receive the full benefit.

While some reports credit these policies with contributing to helping people leave the benefits system, critics have said they are putting more families under or close to the poverty line.

Meanwhile, all left-wing parties with the exception of the Social Democrats also want the reduced form of welfare for recently-arrived foreign nationals including refugees (integrationsydelsen) to be scrapped.

Frederiksen has said that the immigration approach of the previous government will “broadly” be continued, and has instead promised a commission to look into all three welfare areas: the unemployment benefits limit; the 225-hour rule and the integration payment.

READ ALSO: What do Denmark's left-wing parties want in talks to form new government?

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Power shifts in Denmark with the giving of gifts

Transfer of power between governments can be associated with antagonism, ill feeling and tension. In Denmark, it is accompanied by the exchange of gifts.

Power shifts in Denmark with the giving of gifts
Mette Frederiksen hands Lars Løkke Rasmussen his new cycling jersey. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen / Ritzau Scanpix

The quirky tradition was continued on Thursday as Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen took over from predecessor Lars Løkke Rasmussen as head of government.

Tradition in Danish politics dictates that all outgoing ministers, including the prime minister, exchange gifts with their successors on the day portfolios officially change hands.

The gifts, often referred to in Danish as drillegaver (‘teasing gifts’), are normally chosen with an element of humour in mind, while not forgetting to reference political opposition.

As the keys to the PM’s office were exchanged at Christiansborg Palace, the seat of parliament on Thursday, Rasmussen handed Frederiksen a pair of gloves and blue trousers from a set of overalls.

“I’m now handing over a Denmark in top form. And that must be looked after. I know will you do that, Mette,” Rasmussen said.

“One of the keys to achieving that is for us Danes to pull on our working gear,” he added.

In response, Frederiksen gifted Rasmussen, known for his enthusiasm for bicycle racing, a polka-dotted cycling jersey, making reference to his tendency to “break away from the pack” during the election campaign.

“I hope you will be spending a lot more time cycling in future,” Frederiksen joked as she gave her predecessor the jersey.

Also noting that she had probably not seen the last of the Liberal (Venstre) party leader in politics, the new PM had warm words of tribute for Rasmussen, who has served two separate terms as the head of Denmark’s government, from 2009-11 and 2015-19.

She thanked him for a being a decent opponent and for “everything you have done for Denmark”.

Rasmussen, who was not short of joking remarks himself, said he “had a habit of handing over the keys to a Social Democrat”.

After losing the 2011 election, he gave then-Social Democrat leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt his government’s budget repurposed as a handbag, while Thorning-Schmidt gave Rasmussen a bus ticket.

Roles were reversed in 2015, when Rasmussen, having regained power, gave Thorning-Schmidt a selfie stick and received festival tickets in return.

The Danish tradition of giving gifts while handing over power is a modern one, having gradually emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Transition of power used to be very formal,” DR’s political commentator Bent Stuckert told Politiken in 2011. That is evidenced by the below video, which shows Anker Jørgensen making way for Poul Hartling in 1973.

The 2019 version, coming at the end of a long negotiation period to form government, continued Denmark’s overtly friendly approach to handing over the keys to power.

READ ALSO: Here is Denmark's new Social Democrat government