Centre left in disarray over the refugee crisis

By Kristian Weise
13 January 2016
Denmark Denmark
The response to the growing number of refugees from Syria and other migrants has divided Danish progressives, yet the left-of-centre bloc has made a recent comeback in the polls
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For the past half a year or so, Danish politics has evolved around the question of foreigners: how many refugees should the country take? Should it be made less desirable to seek refuge in or migrate to Denmark? And would closer European cooperation be the answer to the so-called refugee crisis or leave Denmark with less sovereignty on the issue?

In the early autumn, most Danes looked in disbelief when big groups of refugees and other migrants walked on the highways on their way from Germany to Sweden. In December, the referendum on getting rid of the Danish opt-out on justice and home affairs – where a small majority of 53 per cent voted no – was dominated by speculation over the impact on asylum policies. And in the early part of this year, the current rightwing government reinstated border controls and thus dismissed parts of Schengen in response to a similar move in Sweden.

How to deal with the refugee situation has not just been on every politician and opinion-maker’s mind but also led to a feud among the oppositional centre left.

The Social Democrats have been criticised for being to close to the governing party, Venstre, and the populist-right Danish People’s party in both policy and rhetoric. The SD’s long-time ally, the social liberal Radikale Venstre, recently noted that leading Social Democrats had created a contradiction between the ideals of humanism and the welfare state when arguing for a limited responsibility to take in more people from non-Western countries. In response to the same statement, the leader of the upcoming party the Alternative, which has only existed for a couple of years but became well represented in parliament in last summer’s elections, Uffe Elbæk, characterised the centre left as dead.

In his view it is hard to see how there can be a centre-left coalition and on what it should cooperate on.

The issue is not just linguistic or ideological – judging whether the ‘centre left’ is an apt expression and whether it is an original or independent position – but fundamental and practical: the Social Democrats have always been in need of one or several partner parties to govern, either as an integral part of their government or as part of a supporting coalition. And that will also be the situation in the future.

Hence, the five parties that currently make up the centre left in parliament will have to find sufficient common ground if they are to provide a parliamentary alternative to the right.

If they do not, and as some speculate, there might be a greater likelihood of there one day being a coalition between Social Democrats and the Danish People’s party – which in spite of its placement on the extreme right has a strong social populist appeal.

The Social Democrats themselves seem neither very concerned over the criticism nor the vanishing of a united centre left.

Instead, the party appears relatively united around a position to limit both immigration and the number of asylum seekers admitted to the country, while maintaining that the welfare state should of course include all people living in the country, including newcomers. A position that is based on a self-proclaimed realism that it will be impossible to sustain the welfare state if the number of non-western foreigners and their descendants increases without an improvement in their integration into the Danish labour market. And which, in more ideological terms, resembles the attention towards the nation as seen in other European social democratic parties and given voice by for example the so-called ‘blue Labour’ tradition in the UK.

For the Danish Social Democrats, the position has been successful so far. The party is by far the largest in recent polls – with around 26 per cent of the support – and its leader, Mette Frederiksen, more popular on most accounts than prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen. Furthermore, the government and its supporting parties are losing backing while the opposition bloc for the first time in several years is at par with the ruling bloc.

The Social Democrats will do their utmost not to lose another election on the question of immigration, foreigners and their integration into Danish society. As a defensive move, that also means backing tighter and tighter immigration and refugee policies from the government. And while it may push away progressive allies – as well as frustrate certain parts of its activist base – it has so far been a balancing act that has been manageable.

Yet, whether it continues to be so lies in its moral foundation: is tight access to Denmark for foreigners a necessity for maintaining the Danish welfare state and labour market or not?