What the Danish Election tells us

David Begg29/06/2015

David Begg: The extraordinary success of the populist, anti - immigration, anti EU, Danish People’s Party (DPP) last week continues a trend in Scandinavia. The Progress Party in Norway and the Finns party in Finland have all upset the established political order and, it would seem at first sight, delivered a body blow to social democracy in a region famed for its combination of economic efficiency and social cohesion.

The leader of the Danish Social Democratic Party (SDP), Helle Thorning-Schmidt, resigned in the aftermath of the election, although why she felt she had to, is not quite clear. While the DPP did well in the election they came second to the SDP. Helle Thorning-Schmidt had been Prime Minister for four years and actually improved the Social Democratic vote to 26.3 per cent remaining the largest party. The Liberals saw their vote fall and could only come in third place with 19.5 per cent of the vote. Nevertheless, its leader, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, will probably become Prime Minister because Denmark has a bloc parliamentary system and the right-wing bloc overall got a larger share of the vote than the left wing bloc. What is unclear is whether the DPP will join the government or support it from outside.

Some commentators (Richard Milne, Financial Times, 22nd June) have opined that what happened in Denmark hastens the demise of Nordic social democracy. I think it rather confirms another phenomenon i.e. the Svallfors Paradox. Named after the Swedish Sociologist, Stephan Svallfors, this holds that, while social democratic parties may not always win elections in Nordic countries, any party hoping to govern must make it clear that it will govern within a social democratic polity in order to be elected. Setting aside its anti-immigrant, anti-EU policies, the DPP is much closer to the Social Democrats in terms of support for the welfare state than it is to the Liberals who want to freeze public spending. Taken in conjunction with the increase in the SDP’s vote the evidence hardly points to the demise of social democracy.

What seems to be happening in various countries is that populist parties wrap their core proposition in a social democratic cloak and hoover up support on that basis. While this does not apply to the so called radical right parties, it does seem to fit the True Finns Party in Finland and the SNP in Scotland. It is very hard to believe that the SNP landslide was down to nationalism alone.

Another interesting question is what does the Danish Election mean in a broader European context? A Danish People’s Party MEP, Mr. Messerschmidt, has been quoted as saying that “It is the intention of the DPP to make Denmark into Cameron’s biggest ally”.

Denmark’s engagement with the EU is a complex one. In part this is due to the fact that policies favoured by the political elite, sometimes known as ‘the Privy League’, have been rejected twice by Danish voters. This happened in the 1992 Referendum on the Maastricht Treaty and again in the 2000 Referendum on Denmark’s continued Euro-cooperation. Like the UK, Denmark was an EFTA graduate. It did not share the commitment to political integration of the six founding members of the EC and worried about the implications of monetary union for its autonomy. In essence Denmark has a Confederalist view of Europe; it wants EU political decision making to complement rather than diminish the power of national parliaments. With or without the success of the DPP this would seem to confirm that Denmark would be a natural ally to Britain.

On the other hand, Denmark has very long standing economic and cultural linkages to Germany despite historical conflicts over the provinces of Schleswig-Holstein. Even though it opted out of a single currency Denmark had earlier linked its currency to the Deutschmark (DM) in the 1980’s. During the 1992 crisis in the ERM the Danish Krona was supported by the Bundesbank while the Irish Punt was not. Denmark is also a strong sub-supplier of German industry.

In the end, therefore, it is likely that economic issues will determine policy. Denmark will be influenced by Germany. David Cameron might be unwise to place too much store by the assurances of Mr. Messerschmitt of the DPP, even if he has a German sounding name.

Dr David Begg

David Begg

David Begg is a former CEO of Concern Worldwide and was General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions between 2001 and 2015.

He has also been a director of the Central Bank (1995-2010), a governor of the Irish Times Trust, Non-Executive Director of Aer Lingus, a member of the National Economic and Social Council (NESC), and of the Advisory Board of Development Co-operation Ireland.

Begg holds a master’s degree in international relations from DCU and a PhD in sociology from Maynooth University.

He is a former director of TASC.


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