Could the current strict Danish migration policy serve as an example for the EU, or does it undermine a common EU migration approach?

Jacob Jung Frellesvig, MSc International Relations, University of Edinburgh

Through strict migration policies, Denmark seems to have developed a migration model that ensures a high employment rate for migrants along with few new migrants entering Denmark.
With Europe looking into a future of mass migration due to climate change, could this Danish approach serve as an example for a common EU strategy?

With the high number of migrants that Europe will experience in the next 30 years, a response to how the EU should react to a possible overburdening of the European welfare states seems more urgent than ever.

Denmark, a relatively homogeneous country, has implemented strict migration policies that are centred around two main goals: one area focuses on making it less attractive for migrants to come to Denmark. The other focuses on creating incentives for migrants that are already in Denmark to work.

These goals are achieved through lowering social benefits for migrants, enforcing stricter language requirements for entering Denmark and a continuous improvement of Danish skills to help migrants join the Danish workforce. It has also become harder to make family reunions for asylum-seekers and more difficult to obtain Danish citizenship while shorter deporting deadlines for unsuccessful asylum seekers have also been enforced. Many of these policy changes are evident in the centre-right government of 2015-2016 which implemented 47 migrant policy changes in less than a year.

The policies seem to work, as Denmark has seen a big reduction in non-western immigrants receiving public benefits. In 2004, 43% of non-western immigrants were being provided for by the state, in 2019 the number had dropped to 29%. Denmark also experiences the highest amount of employment (58,6%) for non-western immigrants in 40 years – as long as Denmark has collected data on the matter – before the pandemic. Furthermore, Denmark has seen a rise in migrant employment after the pandemic, especially regarding migrant women.

Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen made the argument that taking too many migrants would create parallel societies and that a small country like Denmark rests upon a relatively big amount of cohesion and trust along with a high employment rate that finances the welfare state through taxes.

A central issue in the Danish migration debate seems to be the migration of non-western migrants which many, along with the Prime Minister, see as the main migration problem within Denmark. This is why a historically low number of 761 asylum migrants was seen as something positive for the Danish welfare state, as most asylum migrants in Denmark are non-western migrants. In comparison, Denmark took 10.415 asylum migrants in 2015, which was also the peak of the European refugee crisis. The same is the case for family reunification which has fallen from 2601 cases in 2015 and 757 cases in 2019 and is also mostly represented by non-western migrants.

Despite these results, Denmark has received much criticism for these policy changes, labelling the Danish approach inhumane. For example, Denmark received international attention for wanting to deport Syrian refugees to Syria, critics claiming that it was not safe for refugees to return. Also, the European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that the Danish handling of refugees in family reunification in 2015 was a violation of EU human rights.

Despite the international criticism these strict migration views and necessities for Denmark seem to have become widespread among most Danish parties and this seems to have developed a mainstream anti-immigration discourse in Denmark. This change in Danish politics is in particular due to the Danish Peoples Party (Dansk Folkeparti), which has pushed for this anti-immigration agenda since its formation in 1995. An analysis shows that the Danish Peoples Party have influenced the social policies in Denmark, creating so-called welfare chauvinism within the Danish society. The report finds evidence of two cases of welfare chauvinism where immigrants were directly targeted in reducing welfare benefits between 2001-2011, and in six out of seven reforms that had the backing of the Danish Peoples Party, indirect welfare chauvinism was detected, resulting in over-representation among non-native Danes being targeted by laws lowering social benefits.

A recent example of direct welfare chauvinism is that the Danish government proposed a mandatory ’37 hour activation work week’ for ‘newcomers and other citizens with integration problems’. In short, the idea is that migrants that experience ‘trouble with integrating into ‘Danish society’ and are on social benefits at the same time, would need to contribute to Danish society by carrying out some sort of public work for the state 37 hours a week.

In short, it seems that Danish policies try to restrict non-western migrants entering Denmark, as they are believed to have different cultures and have difficulties entering the Danish workforce. This is believed to be a big expense for the Danish society which is why Danish parties see a need to ensure the well-being of the Danish welfare state by limiting non-western immigration to Denmark.

Viewing these policy and discourse changes in Danish politics from an EU perspective, major questions and points of critique arise, as the Danish approach seems to work against core ideas of the EU – cooperation, shared understandings, and solidarity among its members.

For example, the Danish welfare chauvinism could potentially influence the Danish people’s perception of other EU, but non-Danish/Scandinavian people, creating European polarisation or a welfare chauvinistic view from Danes towards certain kinds of other EU countries. How do Danes, for example, perceive foreigners from the EU such as Romanian, Polish, or Croatian wanting to come to Denmark to work?

Welfare chauvinism towards Eastern-European countries in Denmark is already evident and it could be argued that these above-mentioned Danish migration policies could further reinforce welfare chauvinism from Danes towards Eastern Europeans. This is due to the so-called in-group/out-group theory, where people develop group identities and positive feelings towards people that they share similar traits with and negative feelings towards people with whom they do not. Eastern Europeans, for example, could be seen as ‘others’ – an out-group – in Denmark, as Eastern Europeans have evident cultural, ethnic, and linguistic differences from native Danes. From an EU perspective, this is obviously not good, as the Danish migration approach hereby, potentially, could create difficulties within the EU and affect Danish relationships with other EU-member states.

Another problem is how much this Danish immigration policy lies on the premise of other countries and their actions and/or capabilities. An example could be the cooperation that Denmark made with Rwanda around the relocation of Danish asylum seekers to Rwanda. Furthermore, Denmark has also deported asylum seekers to, for example, Syria. But what will Denmark do, once these countries become inhabitable because of climate change?

If we look at asylum-seekers, Denmark is not a part of the common EU rules on asylum, which is why Denmark did not take any of the 160,000 refugees from Italy or Greece in 2017 – this is due to the Danish legal reservation which has been in place for years but still highlights the lack of Danish solidarity. Denmark did also not restart their UNHCR resettlement program in 2018, not taking a single quota refugee that year – in comparison, Sweden took 4,900 refugees in 2018. Denmark did re-join the settlement and took 31 quota refugees in 2019 and 200 in 2020 – to compare, Norway took 3,500 in 2020.

Additionally, the Danish approach only works as other EU countries step up and handle the EU migration problem. Countries such as Sweden and Germany – which are fairly similar to Denmark both regarding social benefits and geographical location – have taken a far higher burden than Denmark in the EU-migration struggle. These countries provide an alternative for migrants that could potentially end up in Denmark, which enables Denmark to make these strict migration policies, essentially moving the Danish migration problem into the arms of other EU countries.

To conclude, the Danish migration approach seems to ‘free ride’ on other European states and only help one country – Denmark. At this point, the Danish-centric approach might not be too big of a problem, as the current EU migration problem is relatively solvable. But this approach is not sustainable for Denmark nor the rest of the EU in the long run as the migration pressure on Europe will intensify with the rising threat of climate change and common EU solutions will be needed.

From an EU view, the Danish approach does not solve, help, or even serve as an example for a collective EU solution. Instead, this approach was successful at maintaining a high level of trust and consensus on the importance of a redistributive welfare state among the Danish people. Despite these positive results within Denmark the Danish strategy and success lie on a national-centric premise and non-solidarity strategy with the rest of the EU and Europe.

The Danish approach hereby rather seems to amplify the migration issues that are already evident within the EU and to create negative downsides for EU relations, due to the possible further creation of welfare chauvinism and hereby polarisation between Danish people and other EU countries.

The lack of Danish solidarity with the rest of the EU seems like a rather big paradox coming from a country like Denmark that has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world and claims to be a western bastion of high social protection and solidarity.