The cartoon controversy radicalised opinion across Europe. Photo credit should read RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP via Getty Images

May 22, 2020   8 mins

Across Europe, political parties once deemed to be on the far-Right have made huge electoral breakthroughs by moderating their positions and coming in from the cold. They have been able to do this because of the unwillingness of mainstream politicians to address one of the most important issues facing the continent – immigration — coupled with media’s tendency to cast dissenting opinion as extreme.

The story does vary from one country to another, and, just as fringe parties come into the mainstream, so can the mainstream come to the fringe. Few places demonstrate this more clearly than Denmark, where politics in recent years has adapted in a way unlike anywhere else in Europe.

The international press regularly describes the Danish People’s Party as ‘far-Right’. But what precisely does the term mean?

There is no hard and fast definition. That’s part of the problem with the term. But by their fundamental nature, ‘far-Right’ parties do not believe in extending the rule of law to all citizens, and either do not support the democratic process or believe that it should be supplanted.

Other specific platform policies — in particular racism and anti-Semitism — are associated with the extreme Right, but attempts to make legitimate and often common and mainstream opinion into signifiers of extremism have made identifying the phenomenon unnecessarily hard.

The Danish People’s Party was founded in 1995 after a split within the Right-wing Progress Party. In its early years, the party distinguished itself by its criticism of the then existing consensus in Denmark on immigration and multiculturalism, and while not deserving of the ‘far-Right’ label, the DPP might accurately be said to have been (in a non-pejorative sense) a nationalist party.

They argued for immigration restrictions, for the state to put an emphasis on integration of newcomers, and for the primacy of Danish values within the country. As with all such parties, they were easily caricatured by the political centre and their concerns often dismissed. But in Denmark, as in neighbouring Sweden, the events of the first decade of the century caused the political centre to move towards them rather than the other way around.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s the DPP were consistent in their attitudes: they never advocated for the use of violence as a political tool, and argued for the extension of equal rights to all citizens. So long as people lived up to the provisions of the citizenship laws of the country, they did not advocate for discrimination along racial or confessional lines. But they were early in raising the central question that was going to keep returning to Danish (as in all European) politics during the 2000s: how much immigration is enough?

In the mid 2000s, the state underwent a remarkable stress-test on this question when the mainstream newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran a set of cartoons in response to the discovery that no Danish illustrator could be found willing to do the drawings for a children’s book on Islam in a series on the world’s major religions.

The then culture editor of the paper, Flemming Rose, recognised that this comprised a sort of unwritten blasphemy law in the country and commissioned a number of cartoonists to test the taboo. The results, whipped up by a number of Danish imams who sought to portray the cartoons as unimaginably insulting towards the founder of Islam, led to worldwide protests, many deaths, and a number of threats and plots against those deemed responsible for this ‘blasphemy’.

And in the wake of that incident, Denmark got a dose of international attention of a kind it was unused to. As a result, the country’s politicians — and the country itself — were startled into a discussion centred not just on questions of free speech but of integration. Polls showed almost full opposition among the country’s Muslim population to the portrayal of Mohammed. In wider Danish society there was a split but it was fairly even, one Gallup poll showed 48% against the publication and 43% in favour.

Over the next decade, that was to change dramatically. In 2015 – after the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris — fully two-thirds of the Danish population thought that Jyllands-Posten had been right to publish the cartoons.

The shift was a response not just to the political discussion that raged intensely over the nature of Danish-ness and the centrality of free speech, but also to the global attention, often intensely hostile.

During this period I had one conversation with a number of representatives from the DPP in the Parliament in Copenhagen, and I recall one expressing their belief that the country should not allow in any more migrants of Muslim origin. I questioned whether this wasn’t too stark a conclusion to come to, and the MP in question replied that since opinion polls showed that the vast majority of Danish Muslims did not believe in freedom of the press, why invite more people who also would be opposed almost in their entirety to such a fundamental pillar of democracy?

So while the DPP grew on a platform of immigration restrictions and integration, something interesting began to happen in the international media. As Denmark’s politicians were made to come to terms with one of the sharpest edges of the integration debate, parts of the international press muddied things considerably by presenting almost the whole of mainstream Danish politics as having lurched to the extreme Right.

The New York Times, in particular, got into the habit of portraying Denmark as a country which had somehow turned to the dark side. Even the story of Danish citizens saving the country’s Jews by getting them out of the country to safety in neutral Sweden to avoid the Nazis — almost all of its 5,000 Jews survived — was highlighted in order to be used against modern Denmark. Events that had been the focus of civic pride in the country were turned into a weapon against it; if a country had saved its Jews in the 1940s, so this logic went, then it had no right to turn away any of the world’s citizens in the 2000s and 2010s.

There is an interesting technical explanation for this, something Danish journalists and politicians understand. Countries like Denmark (with a population throughout this period of around 5.5 million people) will rarely be a centre of press attention, so that when they are, there is a tendency for international reporters – especially American ones — to fly in and play “find the Nazi” before flying back out again. Few spend much time focused on the country.

What is more, there is a tendency in the international media (as with the story of the Danish treatment of Jews in the 1940s) to know one or two facts about a country and then use these as the basis of all subsequent analysis. Observers who noted the number of international correspondents who referred to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia while covering the recent Catalan crises (with which Orwell’s book has no connection) might recognise the trend.

While covering this small, Scandinavian social democracy, reporters from the NYT and elsewhere would call people critical of the government and then use these not-very representative Danes as the “voice of the people”. Inside Denmark, these same critics, often campaigners or activists, would then point to the international furore and say “Look, we are clearly doing something wrong: even the NYT is criticising us”.

And when the international media misreported or misrepresented events, any rebuttal barely got further than Copenhagen, meaning that the allegation stuck and the gap between the reality inside the country and the wider international view grew. As a result, few people have tried to understand what it means for a country the size of Denmark to repeatedly become a focal point for major issues, issues that every European country has also been going through.

So it was that, in the mid-2010s, when the migration wave from north Africa and the Middle East began to disturb politics across Europe, the Danes had already lost much of their previous naivety. The Danish government recognised that the challenge affecting every country was not just a problem of numbers, but of the ability of countries to absorb or integrate people.

During the 2015 crisis, the-then Danish government (most notably the immigration and integration minister Inger Støjberg from the liberal conservative party Venstre) made it clear that they would not go the way of their neighbour Sweden — they would not allow the borders to be open.

So in January 2016, the Danes passed legislation stating that any arrivals who had travelled through multiple safe European countries in order to reach Denmark should expect to help pay for themselves in the country, and not simply expect to rely on the Danish taxpayer. The law was passed with the support of all the main parties, including the Social Democrats.

This became known as the ‘jewellery law’ in international media, in spite of the fact that the legislation made it clear that wedding rings and other personal items should not be seized. Still the story went around the world claiming that the Danish government was going to seize jewellery and other valuables from desperate people arriving in the country. Again, the 1940s comparisons were made, with supposedly chilling echoes of history’s darkest moments. Four years on, and there is still no record of even one incidence of such confiscation of personal jewellery.

There was, in 2018, a similar row. Thanks to misreporting in the NYT, the story went around the globe that the Danish government was proposing to create different categories of citizen, specifically separating out people in ‘ghettos’. Once again, the corrections to the reports failed to get anything like the international attention of the original allegation; the more prosaic truth is that all citizens in Denmark continue to have equal rights and the country continues to operate an asylum system.

Throughout this period, the Danish People’s Party did increasingly well in the polls. Their success peaked at the 2015 election in which they became the second largest party in the Folketing, the Danish Parliament, winning 37 of 179 seats. Unlike in neighbouring Sweden, the party had never been excommunicated from politics, in the way that the Sweden Democrats have been. Indeed, within three elections of the party’s founding, it was providing support to the government.

But 2015 was a breakthrough year and Pia Kjærsgaard became the Speaker of the Danish Parliament, reflecting the fact that the DPP’s core preoccupations had proved pertinent. But the other political parties had also realised that they had to catch up if they were to remain politically successful, and rather uniquely in Europe, adapting to the DPP in their platforms.

Such changes are often represented as though they only exist on the political Right, but one of the most interesting aspects of the Danish story is that even a party like the Social Democrats — who have run a minority government since 2019 under the leadership of Mette Frederiksen – now has policies in many ways indistinguishable from the DPP.

And so Denmark’s equivalent of Labour campaigned in 2019 as being tough on immigration, advocating the same policies as the DPP in processing asylum applications outside of Denmark rather than once people had arrived into the country.

They recognised that the country could not absorb large numbers of migrants and that in order for migration to work, the country needed to focus on integrating the people already there. These policies reflected a widely-held belief in Danish politics that the country had inadvertently created ghettoes and failed at the task of integration.

So while the DPP performed remarkably badly at the 2019 election, winning their smallest share of the vote since 1998, and some party members blamed poor leadership, the larger reason would appear to be that the other parties had simply adapted to almost all of the policies distinguishing the DPP from the mainstream.

If one person could be said to demonstrate this shift it would be Mattias Tesfaye. The now 39-year old Social Democrats Immigration and Integration Minister (himself the son of an Ethiopian immigrant to Denmark) has repeatedly said things that are all but indistinguishable from what DPP leader Pia Kjærsgaard used to argue.

Earlier this month the Danish government released an 800-page report from the Ministry of Justice which concluded that while the Danish public are strongly committed to freedom of speech, immigrant communities have far less of an attachment to the principle. The report found that among immigrants and descendants of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Pakistan, 76% thought that it should be illegal to criticise Islam. Just 18% of the Danish population as a whole thought the same thing — and in response to these findings, Tesfaye announced that immigrants who didn’t respect Danish values should leave the country.

For elements within the international press, this is one more proof that Danish society has lurched to the Right. It is more plausible that the political class has simply responded to the concerns of a citizenry historically used to consensus, but which has found itself in recent years having to repeatedly defend and stand up for some of their most fundamental societal values.

As in every other country, actual far-Right parties do hover in the wings. In 2017, Rasmus Paludan formed Stram Krus, or ‘Hard Line’, whose policies might be guessed at by the organisation’s name. Having achieved some notoriety for burning a Quran, Paladan stood for election on a platform advocating d the removal of all Muslims from Denmark. Despite some warnings in the international press that this new ‘far-Right’ party was about to enter the Danish Parliament, Paladan’s party failed to make the threshold for election in 2019.

Both the success of the Social Democrats and the failure of Hard Line can in part be attributed to the DPP, a party that has shown how the label of far-Right is so widely misapplied by a media less interested in informing than in setting the boundaries of opinion.

If the policies of the DPP are far-Right, then all major parties in Denmark would also have to be described as such, from centre-left to centre-right, in a country that scores higher than almost any other on any measure of equality, gender freedom and human rights.

Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.