The king’s speech and the queen’s echo

BY INGEBORG ELIASSEN

The governments of Denmark and Norway are competing in making their public the most timid in Europe. The debate of immigration becomes a question of  “identity” in contrast to “the others”. Norway is lagging a bit. We have King Harald.

Margrethe has been queen of the Danes since 1972.  She just published a book which deals a lot with what it means to be Danish.The message is this, according to news reports:

”We Danes should explain better the values that our country are based on. And we must set requirements for people who want to become part of Danish society”.

Harald has been king of Norway since 1991. At the Palace’s garden party in September, he made a speech on what it means to be Norwegian.

“Norwegians are enthusiastic young people – and wise old people. Norwegians are single, divorced, families with children, and old married couples. Norwegians are girls who love girls, boys who love boys, and girls and boys who love each other.

Norwegians believe in God, Allah, the Universe and nothing. Norwegians like Grieg and Kygo, the Hellbillies and Kari Bremnes. In other words: Norway is you. Norway is us”.

In both countries the immigration debate has changed, slowly but surely, first in Denmark, then in Norway. It’s become poisonous. It is less and less about economic conditions for integration and belonging. It is increasingly more about identity – what it means to be Danish, what it means to be Norwegian – in contrast to ”the others” who are not, even if they might be living in the country.

The search for identity

But who is ”the people”? Who are ”we”?

In Norway we  ”eat pork, drink alcohol and show our faces”, said minister of integration, Sylvi Listhaug, recently. In Norway we ”eat tacos, drink Coke and show our finger”, joked comedian Pernille Sørensen on prime time TV.

Danish-ness? That is the seasons, the landscape, the first potatoes, strawberries with cream and the western coastline, thought Pia Kjærsgaard, the then leader of the populist Danish People’s Party. Danishness is indeed also to extend a hand to new people and say welcome, added Helle Thorning-Schmidt, then prime minister candidate. This was in 2010.

Denmark is not a multicultural society, said Queen Margrethe when the german magazine “Der Spiegel” asked her about Harald’s speech recently. ”But more people with different roots, backgrounds and religions live here now than 30 years ago”. She said she represented ”all who are citizens of Denmark”.

Integration, royal version

The two royals are second cousins. Both are examples of what we could claim has been relatively successful multicultural integration over time – they hail from the northern German principality of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. Almost all royals in today’s Europe are relatives. Margrethe and Harald have Swedish relatives. And British. And Greek. And Bulgarian. Margrethe took on integration tasks in private when she married the French Henri de Laborde de Monpezat, long since Prince Henrik.

Both Harald and Margrethe have been keeping their fingers on the pulse of their societies for decades. Both have quite successfully managed the art of representing their countries in ways that have made them widely respected ambassadors of Norway and Denmark abroad. Harald, Queen Sonja, Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit can count on the backing of more than seven out of ten Norwegians. Polls in Denmark show the same support, if not stronger, for the country’s monarchy.

Fear-based policies

Many Danes have been possessed by the idea of a “Danish identity” in contrast to others since 2001, when the nationalist anti-immigrant Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party) became the parliamentarian support of a conservative government. In the years that followed, the party used its position to heavily influence the immigration discourse and policies. Danish governments tightened immigration laws to an extent that made international headlines:

  • the criteria for being granted asylum was cut to the minimum required under the Geneva Convention for Refugees;
  • social benefits for refugees were cut by a third;
  • Danish citizens could not bring a foreign spouse into the country unless both were over 24 and the Dane had not claimed social benefits for the past year.

Pia Kjærsgaard responded to criticism from the neighbouring and more liberal Sweden: “If they want to turn Stockholm, Gothenburg or Malmoe into a Scandinavian Beirut, with clan wars, honour killings and gang rapes, let them do it. We can always put a barrier on the Oeresund Bridge.”

The conflicts in the wake of the Prophet Mohammed cartoons in 2005 helped heat up the atmosphere. The conservatives were replaced by social democrats and socialists in 2011, and they reversed some of the policies. But the discourse had been thoroughly altered. Refugees and other migrants had been defined as threats to national identity, the Danish welfare state – and eventually also to national security. And since last year, Denmark again has a government that wants to continue down this road, in actions as well as in words.

”We will have the strictest rules in relation to the countries around us”, declared Inger Støjberg, minister of integration, as she presented a new legal package in December. It consisted of 34 changes that in the words of the prime minister would “shield Denmark” at a time when there is a “puncture in Europe”. Støjberg acknowledged that she had gone to ”the edge of the conventions” in restricting family reunification to a point that the Danish Institute for Human Rights claimed is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Sylvi Listhaug, Photo: Olav Heggoe

The law now states, after the introductory  ”We Margrethe the second, Queen of Denmark by the mercy of God”, that people have to wait at least three years after getting a residence permit to apply for family reunification, previously it was one year. Authorities can confiscate money and jewelry worth more than 10,000 kroner (€ 1,344) from asylum seekers to pay for their stay in asylum centers. There was international outcry. In the end, wedding rings and jewelry of sentimental value were exempt.

Permanent residence permit will be harder to get.

The financial support for asylum seekers has been reduced more.

Since 1989, Denmark has received around 500 refugees annually from UNHCR camps nearer war zones. From next year, this arrangement is put on hold for an indefinite time. The burden of integration and pressure of asylum is too heavy, according to the government. Last year, 21,300 people sought asylum in Denmark. The number by the end of September this year was 5,289.

The competition from the north

Inger Støjberg had a few months’ lead on her Norwegian colleague, Sylvi Listhaug, who was appointed the country’s first ever minister of integration last December. Listhaug represents Fremskrittspartiet (The Progress party), the junior partner in Norway’s populist-conservative coalition government.

Sylvi Listhaug was determined and fast. “The most important factor for successful integration is 

that the foreigner wants to be integrated. People should not have things served on a silver platter in Norway. There must be requirements (..). There must be consequences for those who fail to meet the requirements”, she declared.

Within weeks the minister put forward the government’s 40 proposals for the tightening of asylum laws. ” We will have asylum policies that are among the strictest in Europe. That is necessary in order to be able to receive, find housing for and integrate those who come here”, she said.

The context was 1,1 million refugees and migrants, the all-time high number, having trekked towards northern Europe from Greece.

Plus a historically new situation on the Russian-Norwegian border, which is also a Schengen border: In the space of a few autumn months, 5,500 Syrians and other refugees and migrants had come through the normally very surveilled and controlled Russian side of the border and crossed over to Norway – on bicycles. By the end of the year, the total number of asylum seekers had reached 31,145, the highest since 2002 and around three times the figure of the former four years.

Family reunification: Don’t count on it

Some of the proposals for tightening of asylum rules nevertheless met with public outcry and strong resistance in parliament. The version of the package that passed parliament in April was toned down. Listhaug was disappointed. “The policies we agree on today are more strict than those we have had. But they should have been even stricter”, she said.

In order to qualify for permanent residency in Norway, foreigners now must have been economically self-reliant for a minimum of three years. Unless refugees seek  family reunification within six months (previously one year) after receiving residency permit, they have to wait until they have a minimum annual income of 305,200 kroner (€ 33,570). The opposition pointed out that this is more than the pay for a full-time unskilled job in municipalities. Even after four years, 82 per cent of refugees don’t earn this amount. Simultaneously, applying fast is not always easy: The waiting time for appointments to seek family reunification is more than six months in some relevant embassies.

“Inger Støjberg has been overpowered”, wrote the Danish newspaper Politiken on the Norwegian reforms. That was before other new policies were reported:

Norway has forcibly returned 37 asylum children to Afghanistan so far this year. No other European country has returned as many children to the war-torn country.

Norway has a history of pioneering children’s rights in the United Nations. However, before this year’s UN Summit on refugees and migrants in New York, Norwegian negotiators surprised some other delegations by actively working to tone down a part of the final New York declaration concerning detention of children, which initially read ”Furthermore, we commit never to detain children for this purpose”.

In the end, it declares that detention to determine migration status will only be used “as a measure of last resort, in the least restrictive setting, for the shortest possible period of time, under conditions that respect their human rights and in a manner that takes into account, as a primary consideration, the best interest of the child, and we will work towards the ending of this practice”.

UNHCR’s lost friends

The ”strictest-in-Europe” policies seem to have their intended deterrent effect: Only 2,804 people sought asylum in Norway in the first ten months of 2016. However, it is hard to know how much the sharp fall from 31,145 is a result of this – and not of the EU-Turkey agreement to contain refugees in Turkey and Greece, and the fences that Macedonia, Bulgaria and Hungary have built on their borders.

The anti-immigration policies have many critics, in Denmark as well as in Norway. And beyond.

In the past, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) could often count on Nordic countries to emphasize humanitarian principles in asylum issues. Now it worries about the new direction of Denmark and Norway especially.

”The lack of a joint European response based on responsibility, solidarity and trust among States has made it more difficult for single countries to maintain their humanitarian traditions”, says Vincent Cochetel, director of UNHCR in Europe, in a written response to questions by Investigate Europe.

”A more strict legislation in Norway and Denmark in particular, as well as in other countries, send a signal to other countries that is worrisome and could fuel fear, xenophobia and similar restrictions that would reduce the asylum space globally and put refugees in need at life-threatening risks”.

The Nordic countries have sometimes “knowingly chosen the wrong options in terms of restrictions such as those on family reunion”, according to Cochetel. Research shows that family reunion is a “key factor” towards effective integration of refugees. It can also soothe the fears of host communities who worry at the sight of lonely and desperate refugee men in their neighbourhoods, he says.

“Restrictions on family reunion in several Nordic countries seem to us a step in the wrong direction, as it clearly encourages irregular movements and places at greater risks refugee women and children in transit countries.”

The royal choice: Sow hope or cement fear

Queen Margrethe’s speeches have mirrored the developments in Denmark, shows a review. For many years, she was concerned with the need for everyone to help newcomers become a part of Danish society. Then, worry seems to gradually have grown in her, until she now sounds like a disillusioned echo of the government’s  ”them” and ”us”.

Danes in general have underestimated what successful integration takes, says the queen.

“It is not a law of nature that you become Danish by living in Denmark. You don’t necessarily. Some of the soil in the pot should be changed, I think. People are free to keep their roots, but one shall make sure the soil is fresh”, she says.

King Harald, too, could have decided to use his huge informal influence to further cement the dominant discourse, that of the obvious challenges of integration. He didn’t. He chose a different language.

“Norway is a long and sparsely populated country. But above all, Norway is its people”, he said. “Norwegians come from North Norway, Central Norway, Southern Norway – and all of the other 

regions. Norwegians have immigrated from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Poland, from Sweden, Somalia and Syria. My grandparents came here from Denmark and England 110 years ago. It is not always easy to say where we are from, what nationality we are. Home is where our heart is – and that cannot always be confined within national borders”.

That, surely, is a mightier idea than the one about pork, alcohol and face.

But in 2016, the king’s speech is an exception in Europe.

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2018-05-21T10:37:34+00:00