Danes soften stance on migrants, but divisions are still deep


Picture of Caroline Howard Grøn
Caroline Howard Grøn

Just as in the rest of Europe, the refugee and immigration crisis has been dominating the Danish agenda, particularly because of the EU-related questions it raises. Its opt-out from the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs pillar (JHA) means Denmark has no legal obligation to take part in the EU refugee distribution plan, but recent events and the upcoming referendum on the Danish opt-out have renewed debate on the issue.

The arrival of refugees and immigrants at Danish borders has underscored the importance of asylum and immigration policies, not least the Dublin convention. The apparent breakdown of the Dublin system across Europe and, to the surprise of most Danes, even in Denmark has made it difficult to isolate this question from the general debate on the JHA opt-out.

Denmark’s December 3 referendum is aimed at changing the current opt-out to an opt-in arrangement. When in March a political majority agreed on calling a referendum on this specific opt-out (Denmark has four in total), the so-called ‘Yes parties’ deliberately excluded asylum and immigration policy from the referendum. The intention was to keep focus on the need for ensuring Denmark’s continued participation in Europol, and avoiding any possible interference from the asylum debate that might favour the No campaign.

Last year, Denmark received almost 15,000 asylum-seekers, and the newly-elected centre-right minority government pledged to reduce this number during its mid-2015 election campaign. The European Commission’s plan for a distribution of refugees among member states was thus almost instinctively rejected by the government on the grounds that Denmark had neither obligation nor intention to receive any refugees.

The escalation of the crisis as well as explicit requests from Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel have since led Danish prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen to argue in favour of a European solution. Instead of receiving no refugees at all, Denmark has volunteered to take 1,000 refugees.

The summer’s general election was a great success for the anti-immigration and eurosceptic Danish People’s Party (DPP), and was widely interpreted as an indication of strong support among Danes for the party’s tough asylum policies and its sceptical stance on ceding autonomy on them to the EU. But something now seems to be at work that could point to a decline in support from the general public, or at least the coming of a more outspoken opposition, to the government and the DPP’s hard-line policies.

September saw 30,000 people gather to “welcome refugees” in a demonstration against the anti-immigration advertisements that the government had published in Lebanese newspapers. It is also possible to see growing support among the general public for a European solution. A public opinion poll at the end of August showed that 50% of people agreed that Denmark should participate in the EU’s common asylum, immigration and border policies; 73% agreed, or largely agreed, that refugees should be distributed more equally among the European member states.

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