How Denmark Keeps the Far Right at Bay - Exclusive

How Denmark Keeps the Far Right at Bay

Unlike in other countries, the far right in Denmark did not dominate this month’s European elections. Although populism surged in the country a decade ago, the parties at the center have pushed the far right to the fringes and are now back in control.

In the 2014 European Parliament election, the far-right Danish People’s Party shocked the political establishment by winning the largest number of seats, with the party’s main candidate setting a national record for personal votes received. Then, the DPP triumphed in the general election one year later, to become the largest party in the conservative bloc, and the second-largest party in parliament. But in the European elections this month, the Danish far right was left scrambling to hold on to just one seat. What happened?

Since the shock of 2014, the established political parties, led by the Social Democrats and the current prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, have adopted elements of the far right’s policy positions, especially on immigration, which is generally seen as the main driving force behind the rise of populism. Whereas Denmark once had among the most liberal immigration regimes in Europe, it has gradually tightened its policy and introduced stricter requirements for those seeking Danish citizenship.

Another factor in recent populist waves is the deterioration of living conditions outside the big cities, where jobs and opportunities have been disappearing throughout the globalization era. To address this problem, successive Danish governments have shifted public funds away from the cities – especially the capital, Copenhagen – to shore up social mobility in small-town Denmark.

Meanwhile, the run-up to the recent European Parliament election demonstrated that the far right has fallen out of sync with an overwhelming majority of Danish voters on two key issues: climate change and security policy. In addition to challenging the European Union’s authority to act against climate change, far-right politicians have even announced their intention to withdraw from key climate agreements at the national level. Yet poll after poll has shown that Danish voters demand aggressive policies to combat climate change.

Likewise, on security policy, the far right questioned the EU’s legitimacy as a forum for collective action, and argued that Danish security policy should be decided solely under the auspices of NATO. Yet in light of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Danish voters strongly disagree.

While the Danish far right has always been skeptical of the EU, the DPP did not follow other right-wing nationalist parties in moderating its position in the years following Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, it doubled down and called for Denmark to leave the EU altogether. While that move consolidated the party’s electoral base, it radically reduced its chances of regaining its earlier strength. Danish support for EU membership has grown, and, in 2022, a referendum even scrapped a longstanding opt-out on defense cooperation.

These sentiments should not come as a surprise. Danish television viewers watched in horror as the British House of Commons descended into chaos in the wake of Brexit. Britain’s political turmoil and economic sclerosis have convinced many Danes not to pursue a similar path. Similarly, Russia’s war of aggression has underscored the importance of EU membership and joint policymaking. Denmark is a strong supporter of not only Ukraine but also the Baltic countries, any one of which could be next in line.

But while the far right has been pushed to the margins of Danish politics – owing to its hardened hostility toward the EU and the center’s neutralization of immigration as an issue – the threat of populism is still alive. The far right has splintered, and – contrary to what one might assume – this development is not necessarily beneficial for the political center. The breakaways, under the banner of the Denmark Democrats party, made a strong showing in the 2022 general election, and have secured one seat in the European Parliament.

While the new party is closer to the center and more supportive of EU membership, it has managed to keep immigration on the agenda. Sensing the risks, the Social Democrats’ spokesman on immigration, Frederik Vad, recently warned foreigners in the country against engaging in subversive activities, implying that non-native residents are not generally well integrated into Danish society. By shifting the issue from levels of immigration to the supposed challenges of integration, Vad, who is backed by the prime minister and other established parties, echoed what the far right has been claiming for years.

Although Vad’s statement drew heavy criticism, even from many Social Democrats, it demonstrates the extent to which the populist threat still influences political leaders in the center. They remain convinced that the Danish model for keeping the far right at bay requires constant vigilance.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.

Michael Ehrenreich

Former editor at Berlingske and a former director of the Danish Foreign Policy Society.

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