In Defense of Denmark

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When Denmark passed a law this year permitting authorities to confiscate the personal possessions of asylum-seekers, comparisons to the Third Reich inevitably poured forth. “The idea of seizing jewelry from people who are fleeing has a particularly bitter connotation in Europe, where the Nazis confiscated large amounts of gold and other valuables from Jews and others,” Washington Post contributor Rick Noack wrote. The plan “had the character of what was actually in force during the Nazis’ persecution of minorities,” the country’s former chief rabbi said. “Obviously there is no equivalence to be drawn between Denmark’s proposed policy and the Nazi seizures,” a blogger for the explanatory news website Vox opined, in one of the more measured pieces on the subject. “But it’s nonetheless a strikingly cruel measure to inflict upon a population of poor men, women, and children fleeing death and chaos in their home country.” Combined with earlier decisions by the Danish government to publish advertisements in a Lebanese newspaper dissuading refugee camp inhabitants from coming to Denmark, reduce social benefits for new refugees by almost 50 percent, and prolong the asylum-seeker family reunification process from one to three years, Denmark made itself an easy target for international criticism.

Like much of the discourse surrounding the more than 1 million migrants who have washed upon Europe’s shores over the past year, these reductio ad Hiterlum arguments are facile, deployed in the service of a political agenda. Since the crisis catapulted to worldwide attention last fall, many media commentators have adopted a narrative placing Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel, on a pedestal of selfless humanitarianism while relegating other European countries to the ranks of compassionless brutes. While some national governments (like Hungary’s and Poland’s) have indeed responded to the problem in unproductive and even inhumane ways, Denmark’s is hardly one of them. On the contrary, its position on the migration crisis, once derided as a reverberation of the Third Reich, is now looking like the better part of wisdom.

To begin with, much of the media coverage of Denmark’s response to the migrant crisis has been inaccurate. The asset seizure law does not, as the Washington Post breathlessly reported back in January, allow “the government to search refugees’ clothes and luggage and seize any valuables and cash they find.” Rather, it authorizes authorities to confiscate only items in excess of 10,000 Danish kroner (about $1,500). Furthermore, items of “special sentimental value” like “wedding rings, engagement rings, family portraits, decorations and medals” are exempt. Nor is Denmark’s law unique in Europe; Switzerland, the Netherlands, and some German states (like Bavaria) have similar legislation on the books.

To characterize Denmark’s law, and others like it, as “targeting” migrants is misleading. Rather, with these laws, countries simply ask the same thing of newcomers as they do their native-born citizens. Danes are rightly proud of their social welfare system, one of the most generous in the world. “The welfare state is part of our DNA,” Lars Gert Lose, Denmark’s ambassador to the United States, told me in a recent interview. Danes, he said, “love paying their taxes.” But they don’t take kindly to those who abuse the jealously guarded welfare state, which provides free health care, education, and job training to everyone, as well as accommodation and direct cash handouts to those who cannot make it on their own. Three years ago, long before a deluge of migrants making their way into Europe was considered a possibility, the New York Times published an article about how Denmark was reconsidering its social benefits system, with many Danes suspecting it had become “too rich, undermining the country’s work ethic.” An extreme example lay in the story of “lazy Robert,” an infamous, able-bodied welfare cheat who has conspicuously lived on the dole for more than a decade, and whose story had become a source of both bemusement and national shame. “In the past, people never asked for help unless they needed it,” Karen Haekkerup, then-minister of social affairs and integration, told the New York Times in 2013. “My grandmother was offered a pension, and she was offended. She did not need it.”

To most Danes, then, the asset seizure law is not an act of hostility toward migrants, but rather an extension of the Scandinavian principle of social egalitarianism — albeit, also an effort to send a message. (Despite many press reports that the measure is the sole doing of the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party, which supports a minority government led by the center-right Venstre, the law is overwhelmingly popular with the Danish public, judging by the parliamentary vote in its favor.) “A fundamental principle in the Danish welfare system is, if you have the means to take care of yourself, you take care of yourself,” Lose told me. “If you don’t have the means, the state will take care of everything from housing to education. This principle applies to Danish citizens as well.”

Regardless of the motivation behind it, the law will apply to very few refugees, the vast majority of whom are arriving without any valuable assets. What seems to most anger critics is that — like the much-derided ad in the Lebanese newspaper — the measure is intended to issue a controversial signal, the necessity of which even Merkel has belatedly realized: Europe cannot simply let the entire world move in. This was a principle that Merkel herself explicated last summer before deciding to undertake her act of humanitarian unilateralism and open Europe’s gates to any Syrian able to make the journey. “Politics is sometimes hard,” she said when a weeping Palestinian girl, whose family risked deportation from Germany, confronted her on live national television. “You’re a very nice person, but you know that there are thousands and thousands of people in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and if we say, ‘You can all come,’ and, ‘You can all come from Africa,’ and, ‘You can all come,’ we just can’t manage that.”

In retrospect, compared with its neighbors Sweden and Germany, which have prided themselves on taking in an abundance of migrants (and self-righteously scolded other nations for not doing the same), Denmark’s approach to the migrant crisis looks even better. Sweden, which has accepted far more refugees per capita than any other country in the world, announced in January its decision to deport some 80,000 asylum-seekers, having realized too late the full costs — both monetary and social — of its dangerously naive “generosity.” The Swedish political and media establishment’s longtime uniformity on immigration — brooking no dissent from an open-borders policy and labeling any criticism of it as morally beyond the pale — allowed for the rise of the Sweden Democrats, a once-marginal, far-right party that is now the third largest in the country. Even further to the right of the Sweden Democrats are paramilitary groups that have taken to harassing and beating migrants. In Denmark, by contrast, where immigration skeptics were never written out of the political conversation, alternative views have always been part of the political system. Though the Danish People’s Party is often mischaracterized as “far right,” it is not nearly as extreme as the Sweden Democrats. Anti-migration sentiments are thus channeled in a healthy way — the parliamentary process — and not onto the streets.

In Germany, wrongheaded immigration policies have boosted the far right and fractured a political culture that was once the envy of Europe for its comity. Fueled by the influx of migrants, the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party made impressive gains in a series of provincial elections this year and now polls at 13 percent nationally, making it the third-most popular party in the country and all but guaranteed to enter the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, next year. The fear that even more conservative voters will drift into the arms of the AfD has inspired rumblings within the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), to split off. Were this political earthquake to happen, it would mark the first time in history that the CSU campaigned independently of the CDU.

Attacking Denmark for being stingy and uniquely nationalistic in its approach to the migrant crisis is also unfair in light of its massive development aid budget and commitment to internationalism. Denmark is one of only five countries in the world contributing more than the U.N.-recommended 0.7 percent of its gross national income to development aid, which funds the sorts of programs that address migration at its source: poverty and conflict in the underdeveloped world. It has also sustained the highest number of casualties per capita of any NATO member in the military alliance’s mission in Afghanistan, is a generous contributor to the military campaign against the Islamic State, and is an active participant in the diplomatic process seeking an end to the Syrian war, the main driver of the current refugee crisis.

Meanwhile, to characterize Denmark as not having carried its share of the burden in Europe’s refugee crisis is distorting facts. Writing in Foreign Policy, James Traub called Denmark’s refugee policy “abhorrent” and, specifically, worse than France. Yet, in 2015, Denmark received far more asylum-seekers per capita (21,000 out of a total population of 5.6 million people) than France has pledged to take in over the course of the next two years (30,000 out of a total population of 66 million). To put things in perspective, in per capita terms, 21,000 refugees entering Denmark, a country about the size of Maryland, would be the equivalent of more than 1 million coming into the United States.

More important than any numerical figures related to per capita refugee intake or social welfare spending, however, is the Danes’ cold-eyed understanding of the challenge this crisis poses to Europe’s values and internal political stability. In an essay for the New York Review of Books titled “Liberal, Harsh Denmark,” Hugh Eakin singled out the country for its refugee policy. Visiting last August, right before the migrant wave grew into a tsunami, he chastised the country’s media for writing of an “invasion” from the Middle East “though the influx at the time was occurring in the Greek islands, more than one thousand miles away.” Considering how that “influx,” initially limited to the Mediterranean, soon evolved into a deluge that eventually reached all the way north to Scandinavia, what might have initially seemed to be hyperbolic warnings from the Danish media ought now be considered prescient.

Eakin maligned Denmark’s “growing domestic consensus that large-scale Muslim immigration is incompatible with European social democracy” as a nasty harbinger of continent-wide attitudes. But the wages of irresponsibly liberal immigration policies are being seen across the continent in the rise of populist, anti-immigration, and anti-EU political parties that now threaten the political stability of Europe itself. For too long, European leaders ignored their constituents, brushing off concerns about migration and national identity as taboo. “The integration challenge is enormous,” Lose conceded, particularly in a “homogenous” country such as Denmark. “The only sustainable solution is to get these people integrated into Danish society … to get people out on the job market.” Denmark, rather than Sweden or Germany, believes it more prudent to accept migrants on a manageable basis rather than a starry-eyed idealism that overpromises — both to the migrants and native Danes.

Danes are also the last people who should be lectured to about the sanctity of “European values.” Unlike most of Europe, Denmark has reason to be unambiguously proud of its wartime history, having saved nearly every single one of its Jews during the Holocaust, making latter-day comparisons to the Nazis not only wildly inappropriate but also utterly misplaced. Danes are also strong defenders of freedom of speech, having rallied in defense of Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that originally published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005. When former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen became NATO’s secretary-general in 2009, he pointedly refused to apologize to fellow member state Turkey, which had protested his appointment as a grievous insult to Muslims. Contrast that adherence to principle with Merkel’s pathetic groveling before the Turks over a German comedian who “insulted” authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and was recently banned from repeating an offensive poem by a German court.

In his derisory piece about those overzealously liberal Danes, Eakin referred to the cartoon controversy as “an irresolvable conflict” between European societies and their Muslim populations. If that assertion is true — if a majority or even a plurality of Muslims cannot accept that the freedom of speech includes the right to blaspheme — then it’s an unintended argument in favor of more restrictive migration policies. Danes should not be expected to sacrifice their freedom of speech — the vitality of which, according to Lose, there is “unanimity” in Danish society about maintaining — to accommodate illiberal foreign attitudes. “We paid a high price for insisting on free speech back then, and we still do today,” Lose said. “If you look at the terror list, we’re always in the top 5” of target countries. Yes, Denmark may be “harsh” and “liberal,” but sometimes you have to emphasize the former to protect the latter.

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