The Ethno-Nationalist Backdrop to Danish Social Welfare

By Anas Kababo and Serena Hebsgaard, 2018.

The Scandinavian social democracy model has a comprehensive reputation of offering welfare to all and is broadly associated with free social security, education and health care – attributes, which have been praised (and rightly so) by social and economic analysts across the board. The fact that Denmark was ranked highest in the UN’s World Happiness Report for years in a row has often been attributed to this very system (others were thanking a high average intake of antidepressants). However, a less diffused aspect of Danish social democracy is its extremely nationalist character, and more specifically, the ethno-nationalist undertones of said social system.

In reality, Danish social democracy today presents a welfare system that is highly based on a nationalist understanding of deservingness and increasingly strict lines of inclusion – and exclusion. This has come about in gradual shifts towards a culturalist understanding of welfare policies even among left-leaning parties in parliament, notably the Danish Social Democrats (SD). To fully grasp this, we must briefly revisit the political history that has led to the current alliance between the Social Democrats and the far right in Denmark.

The parliamentary history of the right-wing populists took off in 1995, when the Danish People’s Party (DPP) was founded by Pia Kjærsgaard. Kjærsgaard, formerly a member of the extreme right Progress Party, thus transformed her position from one in which she engaged with outspoken racists to one that deemed itself ‘critical’ of immigration. This shift in rhetoric on the part of Kjærsgaard proved crucial in shifting the mainstream political discourse on immigration over the next 15 years. As expected, the relationship between the Social Democrats and the DPP was tense. SD prime minister at that time Poul Nyrup Rasmussen is famously quoted for telling the DPP that ”they would never become house-trained“ during a parliamentary debate in 1999. However, within the Social Democratic party, there were marked voices of dissent. At rallies and conferences Rasmussen was often contested by Social Democratic mayors from the suburbs of Copenhagen (areas that housed large communities of immigrants), who throughout the 1990’s increasingly voiced critiques of the SD’s national immigration policy. As the Social Democratic Party lost the 2001 national election, the Danish People’s Party gained significant influence with 12% of the votes, making them the third largest party in parliament. Supporting the liberal-conservative government, the DPP continued to grow until the 2015 election at which they peaked at 21% of the electoral votes, grabbing a considerable number of voters from the Social Democrats along the way.

The DPP remained supportive of the liberal-conservative government throughout the first decade of 2000. Externally, lending support to Danish participation in the war in Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq, they internally contributed to the implementation of neo-liberal policies. But their rise to power also marked the beginning of a new development in social welfare: the ethnic stratification of the welfare state. In 2002, for example, the DPP-supported government introduced a special type of benefit that was to be given only to unemployed immigrants from outside of Europe – the so-called ‘start help’. This new type of social-security benefit amounted to half of the social-security benefit that a Danish or European citizen would receive, thus creating hierarchies of deservingness according to the recipients’ place of origin. As the Social Democrats took hold of government in 2011, the ‘start help’ as well as other recently reduced welfare benefits were abolished. Minister of employment at the time, Mette Frederiksen, stated: “We are proud that today we have decided to abolish the low social benefits that have not sufficiently provided people with work, but rather created a poverty problem in Denmark”.

‘Welfare Alliance’ between the DPP and the SD
The statement by Frederiksen, now the leader of the SD party, can be seen as a benchmark for measuring the changes in Danish Social Democratic policy over the course of the last 7 years. Frederiksen has been responsible for shifting the SD party line starkly towards the DPP since her election as party leader, countering the anti-racist stance that typically defines the left-wing. Somewhat surprisingly, DPP (‘supporting party’ in the current government) and the SD (opposition) are now engaging in what they have coined a ‘welfare alliance’, together battling the liberal-conservative government for a political agreement to allocate DKK 25 billion (USD 3 billion) for public welfare. The alliance has gained a lot of media attention, and in a joint interview with the two party leaders in February, neither would exclude the possibility of even forming a government together.

In practice, the relationship between the SD and the DPP has shifted from a battle for voters to what resembles a merging of parties (and voters). This shift is evident in their increasingly similar nationalist narratives of a Danish welfare system that is threatened by refugees.

The instrumentalization of social welfare in anti-immigration rhetoric and neoliberal policies
The question of Danish values has become a focal point in creating and passing new bills targeting immigrant groups. Just earlier this year, the Social Democrats voted for the so-called ‘burqa-law’, seeking to ban the wearing of niqab in public. However, it is in asylum politics that the discourse surrounding ‘Danishness’ – the term chosen as Danish word of the year in 2016 – and ‘national values’ have left their strongest mark.

Danish social welfare is often instrumentalized in anti-immigration rhetoric, in which ‘migrants and their descendants’ are accused of exploiting social benefits. This is particularly stark in DPP rhetoric, which has always been characterized by a fusion of far-right anti-immigration policies and fairly left-wing redistributive policy. Accordingly, the DPP’s core ideology is that the maintenance of the welfare state relies on a strictly regulated immigration policy. In their official political manifesto, the DPP claims that “an un-homogenous society will never be capable of maintaining a welfare model […]”. They conclude that “maintaining the Danish welfare society should therefore be seen in connection to the maintenance and development of a tight immigration policy, ensuring that only persons with a right to be in Denmark are granted access to the country.”

A substantial part of the DPP welfare narrative consists in emphasizing that immigrants don’t work – that they don’t contribute to the Danish society and are nothing but a cost to the system. Since the Social Democrats presented their 2015 campaign with nationwide bus-posters proclaiming “If you come to Denmark, you’ll have to work”, the same trope has become more and more prevalent in the center-left party’s discourse. The campaign was launched alongside the SD-led government’s unprecedented tightening of asylum laws, and was part of a bigger integration proposal targeting newly arrived, unemployed refugees in Denmark. The same year, the SD government passed a tax reform bill, which lowered the regulation on social benefits and raised the threshold for top tax-payers, in effect continuing the neoliberal policies of the earlier liberal-conservative government. Later, in 2016, the Social Democrats voted to implement the so-called “jewelry law”, which allowed authorities to arbitrarily frisk refugees and confiscate any values that they might be carrying on their body. Alongside this infamous law, they cut back on the already reduced social-security benefits offered to refugees by 10%.

In February 2018, SD leader Frederiksen stated that the biggest challenge Denmark is facing right now is ‘non-Western’ immigration. Frederiksen added: “to put it very frankly, if you want a trust-based Scandinavian welfare society, you’re obliged to control how many [people] come here.” Her party’s concrete suggestion as stated at a press conference in February is to stop all spontaneous asylum in Denmark, in practice limiting asylum-grants to quota refugees from camps in neighboring regions.

Essentially, Frederiksen and her party have adopted the idea that Danish welfare is threatened by unemployed immigrants. The reasoning behind the Social Democrats’ asylum policy is according to Frederiksen that “we cannot continue to pay the bill for the many, who stand outside the labor market. And we have to agree on the values that apply in our society.”

The Social Democrats did not invent this culturalist view of the Danish welfare state and its attachment to the ‘nation’ and its values. They are copying quite classic DPP rhetoric by presenting an alleged dichotomy between ‘non-Western’ immigration and Danish values, suggesting that the latter is based on a strong, admirable work ethics to which ‘migrants’ are unlikely to abide.

The Danish asylum system and clientelism
Ironically, the Danish asylum system is deeply embedded in a type of clientelism, in which many asylum seekers are kept in asylum centers for years onwards without documents, thus prohibiting them from working and forcing them to live on (a very limited) welfare assistance. In 2016, the average asylum seeker spent 550 days in the Danish asylum system waiting for a case ruling. This number is based on individual cases spanning from one month to 18 years. The extreme examples of waiting periods (like 18 years) are usually due to a negative case ruling for example if the circumstances in the refugee’s country of origin prevent the Danish state from immediately deporting the person in question.

As asylum seekers are not allowed to work, they receive a cash allowance (popularly referred to as “pocket money”) twice a month. The amount of the allowance varies, but in the ultimate high end, a family with two children paying their own household expenses will receive well less than a third of the equivalent Danish family on welfare assistance.

In 2015, the newly appointed liberal-conservative government (re)implemented, together with DPP, the ‘integration allowance’. This allowance is a particularly reduced social-security benefit given to non-European immigrants, much like the ‘start help’ introduced in 2002. The purpose of the reduced allowance was, according to the Ministry of Employment, to make it “less attractive to come to Denmark and more attractive to work and contribute to the Danish society.” The integration allowance – about half of the regular social-security benefit offered to unemployed Danes – is a new example of the sense of ‘deservingness’ and differentiation within the Danish welfare system.

Applying the fairly established fact that people prefer providing for themselves (if they are able to of course – war trauma is for example a considerable impediment to this), let us just take a look at the consequences of Danish asylum-clientelism and (un)employment discrimination.

First of all, the Danish asylum system is severely patronizing, as it creates a clientelist relation in which asylum seekers depend on the alleged benevolence of the state. Meanwhile, asylum seekers have certain obligations to that system, such as signing an integration-agreement accepting ‘Danish values’, and not undertaking any professional job in Denmark until a permanent residence permit is obtained.  

There are many anthropological theories on the obligations and power relations – notably dependency – latent in acts and discourses of charity. The most popular perhaps being Pierre Bourdieu’s claim that there’s no such thing as a free gift. To Bourdieu, and many gift-theoreticians before him, gift-giving conveys an array of ways to exert symbolic power and institute legitimate domination. In other words, presenting asylum seekers’ pocket money as an altruistic, free gift from the Danish state, distorts not only Denmark’s national responsibility to provide for refugees (we might think of the asylum allowances as a very stingy type of repatriation for e.g. war and economic extraction in the concrete sending countries throughout the years). It also distorts the atmosphere of obligation and superiority that the clientelist asylum system installs in Danish politics and society. Integration minister, Inger Støjberg (Liberal Party), illustrates this in her official 2017 statement “when you come here [to Denmark], you should be thankful, you should be humble [sic] and then you should make an effort.” SD leader Frederiksen shares that sentiment. Earlier this year, Frederiksen answered the Danish-Somali social worker Hanna Hassan’s critique of the Social Democrats’ recent fiscal and social-policy turns, by saying “those are hard words coming from someone, who Denmark has warmly welcomed.” Frederiksen’s apparent call for ‘gratitude’ and hence a softer tone from Hassan, who came to Denmark with her parents in 1993, is part of a broader – and undeniably racist – Danish phenomenon.

In reality, asylum in Denmark, and the modest allowances associated with it, is everything but free. The clientelist system is used, increasingly also by the Social Democrats, to silence and pacify refugees in holding the Danish state responsible. As a last comment on ethno-nationalist interpretations on Danish welfare and work ethics, we might add that even if granted asylum (counting only 36% of the refugees applying in 2017), newly arrived Danish citizens are likely to work a lot harder in order to get the same job as e.g. a white Dane born in Denmark. According to a 2016 examination of discrimination in the Danish labor market, it was documented that applicants with a Middle-Eastern sounding name had to send 52% more job applications to get an interview than persons with traditional Danish names but otherwise similar CV. So speaking of deservingness, the meritocratic principles of employing the most fit for the job, are in practice compromised by institutionalized racism in Denmark.

An alarming development of the center Left
When the Social Democrats copy populist tactics from the far-right in this narrative of ‘Danishness’ and welfare as national entities to be protected, they are undermining their own political project in a number of ways. They are, in practical terms, creating a false image of the forces that are actually impinging on Danish social security, and promoting this fantasy among the broader socialist movement.

Considering the facts, immigration is not what makes the welfare system break down. Migrants and refugees are – even from a strict utilitarian approach, if one insists on being so inclined – economic and social resources for the Danish society. In particular, that is, when they are considered as such rather than being pacified by a broken asylum system that refuses to provide asylum seekers with work-permits – let alone provide them with asylum, a residence permit and rights as Danish citizens.

From a politico-historical perspective, it is odd that the Social Democrats reduce social-democratic values of solidarity and welfare to this exclusive border regime adopted from the extreme nationalists. Simultaneously, they whitewash the neoliberal policies of privatization, financial aid to banks, fat tax redemptions for multinational companies and the richest, as well as expensive (and, we might add, refugee-producing) warfare which is actually compromising Danish welfare. Within recent time, the nationalist smokescreen has also been utilized by Social Democrats to cover their support of several neoliberal and outright racist bills in parliament. The latest includes the so-called ghetto-plan proposed in February by the liberal-conservative government and supported by the Social Democrats. Not only did the SD support legislation that would introduce double punishment for crimes committed in ghetto areas, but they also supported the tearing down and privatization of public housing, making it even harder for workers and people on welfare to find affordable housing. The threat to Danish social democracy is definitely a real thing: the liberal-conservative government supported by the DPP have been butchering the welfare system for years. Confronted by this threat, the SD has, quite shamelessly, identified immigration as its favorite scapegoat. Rather than opposing material injustices – multinational corporation tax exemptions, financial and social inequality, and the privatization of public welfare – which are after all in direct conflict with any interpretation of socialism or even social liberalism, the Danish Social Democratic party has become a mirror of its far-right, racist antithesis. All this with fatal consequences for refugees and people racialized as migrants in Denmark.