Bertel Haarder’s project to preserve Denmark’s spirit

Culture Minister Bertel Haarder fears that immigration has the potential to tear the European project apart, but it could have been avoided if we had been more clear about which values immigrants must accept. But which values can we not compromise on? This is the goal of his current project, the Denmark Canon, which he hopes will bring immigrants and Danes together around a shared set of values and principles.

Bertel Haarder peels an apple with a pocketknife. He cuts out the core, separates the flesh into eight pieces and savours each bite while taking short pauses between questions.

“Being a politician requires making initiatives that some people are against. Adolf Hitler would still have governed Germany if Winston Churchill had followed public opinion – just to give a dramatic example. I remember a lot of interviews where I had to waste my time explaining and explaining and explaining because I want to be an open person,” Haarder says in his office in the Culture Ministry across the canal from Parliament in central Copenhagen.

It’s a quote that says a lot about Haarder, Denmark’s 71-year-old Minister for Culture and Church. On the one hand, he’s an accessible member of government who spends a lot of time engaging with the media and participating in public events. On the other, it hints at his reputation for being impatient with journalists who stray from the agreed line of questioning.

But, more fundamentally, it demonstrates that he is prepared to make unpopular decisions that he believes are right for Denmark. And few politicians have had the impact on Danish society that Haarder has.

In October he became Denmark’s longest serving minister since 1902, with over 7,800 days served as a minister. As Education Minister in the 1980s, he ushered in reforms to upper secondary education and spending cuts that unleashed massive protests. After seven years as an MEP in the European Parliament in the 1990s, he returned to Denmark in 2001 to serve as Minister for Refugees, Immigrants and Integration in a coalition government with the Conservative People’s Party. His reforms both made it far more difficult to immigrate to Denmark, while also limiting welfare for immigrants – reforms that were massively unpopular among many in the left wing.

As Haarder later explains, his reforms were less designed to punish immigrants than prevent new arrivals from languishing on welfare. But the meeting of cultures is not unproblematic, he argues, especially if the host culture is uncertain about what its central values and principles are.

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Culture Minister Bertel Haarder in his office. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Culture Minister Bertel Haarder in his office. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Defining Danish society
Months after assuming his role as Culture Minister last year, he presented a project to address this issue: the Denmark Canon (Danmarkskanon). Through a website, the public was invited to submit ideas for which social values, traditions or movements have shaped Denmark, and which they want to carry through to Danish society in the future.

The entries had to satisfy three conditions: they must relate to Danish history, have present and future relevance to Denmark, and can be considered immaterial in nature, for example historical events, traditions, movements or values.

This summer, Haarder presented the five Danish values and traditions that he feels are most central to Danish society: gender equality, free speech, the folk high school culture, working, and cycling.

“When I am asked what I first of all would like in the canon, I always think of the confidence that Danes have in each other. They even have confidence in public authorities. They even have confidence in politicians. We are the least corrupt country in the world. I think it will be very high on the list to keep it that way. Therefore we should not tolerate parallel societies following their own rules,” he says adding that the welfare state has so far proved a popular submission.

“It very well may end up top of the list because we want to keep it. That’s the reason why we cannot have open borders. You cannot have open social systems for anybody coming from all over the world, receiving social benefits at a level that is much higher than if they had qualified work in their home country. You cannot have that and have open borders too. That’s impossible.”

READ MORE: “Unemployed immigrants challenge Danish tolerance”

Open doors and windows
Haarder often frames the Denmark Canon in terms of addressing the challenges presented by globalisation and immigration. And there are two sides to this. First, to properly engage with the rest of the world, Danes must first understand who they are as a society.

“I believe that people are most open towards people coming from outside, and influences from outside, if they have solid roots in their own culture. My Denmark Canon project is not in any way inward looking, it’s not something that should separate us from other cultures or peoples,” he says.

Second, is that for immigrants to thrive in Denmark, they must also understand the culture they are living in.

“We need to be more clear about what are the basic values of this country. Where can we be flexible? For example headscarves, and what we eat, and so on. But there are some basic values where there cannot be any compromise and I think it can be very useful to ask Danes what these are so we can be more clear.”

READ MORE: Danes ‘split and confused’ over refugees

Outside influence
Haarder says he was careful to ensure that the project was not isolated from Danes with immigrant backgrounds, and invited in a number of them to contribute their thoughts during the planning stages. One of them is Abdel Aziz Mahmoud, a journalist at DR who is also outspoken in the political debate about integration.

In an interview in Berlingske, Aziz spoke out about his concerns that the Denmark’s Canon could become a project to exclude, rather than include.

“If the concept of liberalism is included, the danger could be that people would be labelled unDanish if they were not liberal. I fear the canon could be used as a check list for what it means to be Danish,” he said, adding that he still supported the project.

Radio host Rushy Rashid, another one of Haarder’s consultants, expressed more enthusiasm for the Denmark Canon when Berlingske interviewed her.

READ MORE: Giving voice to multiculturalism

“I grew up with parents that have strong values that easily overshadowed Danish values. So my experience is that we in Denmark need to be better at promoting the positive values.”

Bjarke Møller, director of think tank Think Europe, pointed out that Danish culture was so embedded in European history that it makes little sense to speak of Danish traditions, cultures and values without also discussing Denmark’s place in Europe.

“If the Denmark Canon is to really make sense, it needs to be seen as part of a larger European cultural canon, only translated into Danish,” Møller wrote in an op-ed for Politiken newspaper.

But Haarder doesn’t see these critiques as undermining the project. He points out that modern Danish culture was particularly shaped by Denmark’s Golden Age in the first half of the 19th century, which saw a blossoming of Danish culture, particularly in arts and literature.

READ MORE: A bleak and violent future

“It took place in a country where 40 percent of the citizens were Germans, because Denmark went all the way to Hamburg. Still, that was a Danish Golden Age. Why? Because of all the German influence, coming from Berlin, from Holstein, was met with a cultural conscience, with an ambition of taking the foreign influence and turning it into something generally Danish. That is what created a Golden Age. Not isolation, not closed windows and doors.”

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Culture Minister Bertel Haarder in his office. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Culture Minister Bertel Haarder in his office. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Ethnic isolation and social exclusion
Haarder’s objective with the Denmark Canon is not simply to identify uniquely Danish values and traditions in order to lay claim to them. Rather, it’s an attempt to challenge cultural relativism, which he believes has had a damaging effect in the meeting of immigrants and the Danish welfare state. Unable to enter the labour market, and with easily available unemployment benefits, immigrants languished separate from the mainstream Danish society, and with little incentive to join it.

“I reiterated over and over again that it wasn’t immigrants who were to blame. I kept repeating that they arrive in Denmark with a wish to work and with an ambition to take care of their families. But the first thing they get to know is how they don’t need to work. And even though they are from the countryside, virtually all of them are put in apartment buildings and turned into wage earners with no chance of earning a wage because they have no qualifications. The Danish labour market is like a ladder where the lower steps are missing, so it’s very difficult for those with no qualifications – who don’t even speak the language – for them to find a low-paid job to begin with. That’s what they can find in Southern European countries and the US and Canada, but not in the Scandinavian countries. We are run by unions that have made sure that you cannot work without having some of the highest wages in the world. And that’s fine for the Danes. But for newcomers that leads to a very poisonous combination of ethnic isolation and social exclusion.”

Haarder points to the failure of the Danish welfare state to get more immigrant women into work and traces it to a lack of assertiveness by Danes about the importance of gender equality – one of his picks for the Denmark Canon – and the expectation that both men and women should work in Denmark.

“Gender equality is the big problem in some of the immigrant communities. Because we have not been clear about this. They should have been told clearly that they have come to a country where gender equality cannot be compromised. That is true for their wives – who are supposed to be in the labour market and learn Danish otherwise they get no social benefits – and their daughters who are supposed to participate in the afternoon in after school activities. We have not been clear about this.”

READ MORE: Is feminism a dirty word in Denmark

A minister for immigrants
Haarder laid out his critique of the welfare state in his 1997 book Soft Cynicism, which was released during his time as an MEP in the European Parliament.

“The point of my book is that soft values lead to cynicism,” he told Information newspaper the same year. “We want to be so kind to children who can’t read, that we end up letting them down so they become the worst at reading in Europe. We want to be so kind to young immigrants, but we end up ruining their chances of succeeding in the Danish society.”

His views made him an ideal candidate for implementing tougher immigration laws when Venstre regained power in 2001. So effective were the policies he implemented, that family reunification dropped 68 percent, and asylum 81 percent between 2001 and 2005.

The laws were roundly condemned on the left wing, in part due to their collateral damage. The foreign partners of many Danes were prevented from moving to Denmark, leading them to start new lives across the Øresund in Sweden, where they could settle due to more relaxed immigration laws and their EU citizenship.

These so-called “love refugees” provoked the same outraged headlines in international media as the “jewellery law”, which was introduced earlier this year and allows police to confiscate valuables from refugees. But despite the negative international attention these laws garnered, Haarder points out that they have ultimately served as inspiration for countries across Europe. They also didn’t make him unpopular among immigrants, he says.

“I always attended the Eid festivities, Pakistan national day, I met a lot with the Turkish community. Immigrants felt in many ways that I was their minister. When I was walking around people often wanted to get their photograph taken with me. I was not at all unpopular among immigrants. Not at all. And now, still I have very good friends among some very outspoken immigrants.”

The uproar over the jewellery law was particularly disproportionate, he argues, given that it has only been used once by police. Five Iranians were stopped in Copenhagen Airport in June travelling under fake documents, leading police to confiscate cash worth around 80,000 kroner.

“The jewellery law had absolutely no effect. It did harm our image abroad, and since it had no effect then many of us would probably have wanted the wording to be different. Because what it was about, was that if you want social benefits in Denmark, then you need to declare your incomes and assets and that’s all there was to it.”

READ MORE: The last stand of refugee rights

European breakdown
According to a 2004 book by journalists Andreas Karker and Mikael Børsting from the tabloid B.T., Haarder’s track record as immigration minister could be why he wasn’t selected as Denmark’s EU commissioner in 2004 – PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen didn’t want to let him go.

After three years reforming Danish immigration law, Haarder felt his job was done, and he asked Rasmussen to consider him for the post. He was keen to return to Brussels and try his hand in the European Commission, after his seven years in the European Parliament between 1994 and 2001.

Rasmussen overlooked Haarder in favour of agriculture minister Mariann Fischer Boel, and he also missed out on the post in 2009 when Connie Hedegaard, the climate and energy minister from the Conservative People’s Party, was sent to Brussels to spearhead its climate efforts.

READ MORE: Liberalism is not egoism

Haarder is worried about the future of Europe, and blames the challenges presented by immigration for Brexit and the rise of populist sentiment across Europe, which could result in far right and anti-EU leaders, such as Marine Le Pen, from taking charge.

“They may cause the breakdown of the most remarkable peace project in world history, the European Union. It is so dramatic. People think the union has failed. People think their leaders have closed their eyes to the integration problems. They feel that the leaders live in special areas and that all the problems are then carried by the working and poorest people who compete with immigrants and refugees,” he says.

“The best thing that happened to Europe was the fall of the Berlin Wall. The worst is Brexit, because it could be the end of a remarkable period and it was all caused by immigration. That was the reason. Shouldn’t we take problems of immigration seriously? And while my country has done something that might have been unnecessary, the fact that we are doing something has my full support.” M

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By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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