Tag Archives: denmark

Merkel may be down, but don’t rule her out for a fourth term just yet

Germany’s chancellor since 2005, Angela Merkel is widely believed to be preparing to seek fourth term in the 2017 federal elections. (Facebook)

It’s entirely possible that September 2016 marks the worst month of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s career.Germany Flag Iconmecklenburg-vorpommern berlin

Merkel’s center-right party, the Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) fell to third place in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a relatively low-population state of just 1.6 million that sprawls along the northern edge of what used to be East Germany. While the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) has been traditionally stronger there in elections since reunification, two factors made the CDU’s loss particularly embarrassing. The first is that it’s the state that Merkel has represented since her first election in 1990 shorly after German reunification. The second, and more ominous, is that the CDU fell behind the eurosceptic, anti-refugee Alternative für Deutschland (Afd, Alternative for Germany), a relatively new party founded in 2013 that today holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state assemblies and that, according to recent polls, will easily win seats in the Bundestag in next September’s federal elections.

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Two weeks later, on September 18, Merkel’s CDU also suffered losses in Berlin’s state election. As left-wing parties have long dominated Berlin’s politics, and the SPD placed first and Germany’s Die Linke (the Left) and Die Grünen (the Greens) placed third and fourth behind the CDU. But even in Berlin, the AfD still won 14.2% of the vote.

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Taken together, the state election results forced a mea culpa from Merkel on Monday. The chancellor, who is expected (though by no means certain) to seek a fourth consecutive term next year, departed from the calm, steely confidence that since last summer has characterized her commitment to accept and integrate over a million Syrian refugees within Germany’s borders. Merkel admitted, however, that she would, if possible, rewind the clock to better prepare her country and her government for the challenge of admitting so many new migrants, and she admitted lapses in her administration’s communications. With the AfD showing no signs of abating, it’s clear that its attacks on Merkel’s open-door policy are working. Merkel’s statement earlier this week admitted that her policies have not unfolded as smoothly as she’d hoped.

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RELATED: Can Hillary Clinton become America’s Mutti?

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Indeed, German polls are starting to show that voters are souring on Merkel and her approach to migration, so much that in one poll in August for Bild, a majority of voters no longer support a fourth term for Merkel. All of which has led to hand-wringing both in Germany and abroad that Merkel’s days are numbered.

Don’t believe it. Continue reading Merkel may be down, but don’t rule her out for a fourth term just yet

Long before Brexit came Greenlandexit — and a corresponding boost to Greenland’s economy

In 2015, Greenlandic prime minister Kim Kielsen signed a new declaration over EU relations.
In 2015, Greenlandic prime minister Kim Kielsen signed a new declaration over EU relations.

The year was 1985.European_UnionUnited Kingdom Flag Icongreenland flag

Germany was still divided into east and west, and Portugal, Spain, Austria and Sweden were all still outside the European Economic Community, the forerunner to today’s European Union.

But it marked the first — and, so far, the only — time that any territory voluntarily exited the European Union.

It was Greenland, then and today an autonomous country within the kingdom of Denmark. In the 1980s, Greenland was fresh off winning a new layer of home rule in 1979 from the Danes. Angry about the fact that its own local fisheries were forced to compete with more industrial fishing outfits from the European Union, Greenlanders voted to leave the European Economic Community, many of them noting that Greenland is closer, in geographic terms, to the North American continent than to Europe.

In the intervening years, of course, several rounds of treaties have refined the European Union’s structure, including the Treaty of Lisbon, which for the first time introduced in Article 50 a legal mechanism for a member-state’s exit from the European Union that establishes a two-year framework for negotiation from the moment of withdrawal notification to final exit.

Greenland, however, set the only real-world precedent that British voters and policymakers have if, indeed, the country decides to leave the European Union in the June 23 referendum.

Flush off the excitement from winning a modicum of self-government from Denmark nearly 3,500 miles away, the eurosceptic, left-wing and outright separatist  Siumut (Forward) soon won the first local elections after the introduction of home rule. Among other things, Greenland’s prime minister Jonathan Motzfeldt scheduled a referendum for February 23, 1982, in which Greenlandic voters would be asked whether the country should continue to be a member of the European Economic Community after becoming a member, nearly by default, when Denmark acceded in 1973.

The referendum was close — out of 23,795 voters, 53.02% voted to leave and 46.98% voted to remain. Continue reading Long before Brexit came Greenlandexit — and a corresponding boost to Greenland’s economy

Eight things Americans should know about the Danish (and Nordic) welfare state


Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate had barely started when the two leading contenders, former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and US senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont immediately clashed.USflagdenmark flag

Over Denmark.

That’s right. Before Iran or Cuba, Syria or Russia, the US Democratic debate began with a minor tussle over a small Nordic country that’s home to just 5.614 million people.

From the beginning of his campaign, Sanders has called for a Nordic-style state that pays for single-payer health care, free education and other state-provided benefits, and he defended the Nordic model as a lodestar for US policy-making on Tuesday night:

Those are some of the principles that I believe in, and I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.

Clinton, for her part, argued that the Danish model wasn’t particularly well suited for the United States:

But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America. And it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system.

Neither candidate necessarily went beyond a surface-level comparison with the Nordics, though.

When Sanders — a self-described ‘democratic socialist’ — refers to the Nordic model, he’s referring to a generic set of policies that describe a typically high-tax, high-services government that provides health care, education, child care, ample family leave, copious unemployment benefits and, in some cases, up to five weeks of annual vacation time for workers. It’s often described as a kind of hybrid system that melds elements of socialism and capitalism. Denmark proportionately spends more than 150% on social welfare spending than the United States — 30.1% of GDP, compared to the US standard of 19.2%.

Increasingly, however, across the Nordics, the rise of center-right and sometimes far-right groups have succeeded in reforming that understanding of the welfare state by trimming benefits and reducing taxes, all while pushing for policies that encourage innovation and easing business regulation. Today, there are center-right governments in four of the five Nordics (Finland, Norway, Iceland and Denmark), and an eight-year, reformist center-right government ended just last autumn in Sweden under the still-popular former prime minister Göran Persson. In three of those countries, governments rely on hard-right and often anti-immigrant parties to support their policy agendas.

Taken together, the Nordics — and that includes Denmark — are generally some of the happiest, wealthiest, most productive and surprisingly competitive in the global marketplace.

But the story of the Nordic model is much more complex and nuanced, and there are reasons why it might work better in northern Europe than elsewhere, including the United States.

Here are eight features of the Danish system, in particular, that help explain some of that context — both good and bad.


1. Denmark has been ranked the ‘happiest country in the world’

In Danish culture, there’s a concept called hygge, and it’s said that there’s really not an English language translation for it — warmth, coziness, contentment.

It’s one of the elements that motivates the Danish welfare state, and it explains why, for many Danes, consumerism isn’t as important as spending time with family, working reduced hours and using more free time to pursue individual hobbies and non-professional lives.

That explains, perhaps, why a couple of years ago, Denmark was ranked the happiest country in the world.

But it also explains why peculiarly Danish or Nordic or European cultural features do not easily translate in a country like the United States, and why policies based on Danish cultural attributes might not be nearly as popular in the American context.

2. Its reformed welfare state is actually pro-business

The fact of a strong welfare system isn’t necessarily incompatible with a pro-business orientation. As Marian Tupy wrote earlier for the Cato Institute, Denmark today is ranked as an easier place to do business than the United States, boasts a freer trade regime and slightly outpaces the United States on economic freedom.

Companies like Mærsk dominate global shipping, and Danske Bank is a key financial operator throughout northern Europe. But Denmark’s system has also unleashed as much creativity as commercialism. LEGO is a Danish concept, and the country spawned an entire school of designers in the mid 20th century Denmark, most notably the architect Arne Jacobsen. Today, there’s no more cutting-edge trend in cuisine than the ‘new Nordic’ cuisine, and its hub is Copenhagen, which is home to several Michelin-starred restaurants.

It’s true, however, that the Danish welfare state isn’t your father’s Nordic welfare state. Since the 1970s, successive center-right governments, including that of prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in the 2000s, have tried to freeze tax increases or even lower taxes in certain cases, especially for business. Despite the enduring popularity of the Danish welfare state, Danes are increasingly aware of the demands that an aging population will make. So far, reforms include an increase in the retirement age from 65 to 67 gradually over the next eight years, a decrease in the limit for unemployment benefits from four years to just two and certain limits on grants provided to students.


3. It gets nearly 50% of its electricity from wind power

Environmentalists also take much delight with Denmark. It was a leading developer of wind power as a renewable energy source in the 1980s, and today wind power amounts to 39% of Denmark’s total electricity consumption — and that’s set to rise to 50% within five years. On some particularly windy days, Denmark meets up to 140% of its total electricity needs.

Though the results of Denmark’s renewable energy program give heart to environmentalists, they should also perk up capitalists as well. Wind power is now big money, at least for Denmark, despite the highly subsidized start-up costs of building offshore wind farms. Moreover, its push to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels resulted from a sense of conservative prudence from the aftermath of the 1970s oil shocks.

4. Education, even for adults, is an important public value

One of Denmark’s national heroes is the 19th century philosopher Nikolaj Gruntvig, who is credited with formulating Denmark’s national education theory. That translated, from the 1840s onward, a dedication to the value of public education in Denmark. Even today, Denmark has a tradition of the folkehøjskole, or ‘folk high school,’ where adults can return to education to obtain new skills for their careers or even just for fun or for post-retirement intellectual stimulation.

That’s one of the reasons that free education is such a cherished value in Denmark. But it also shows that the roots of the Nordic welfare system are often centuries in the making. Unlike, say, in the United Kingdom, where universal government-run health care was a postwar phenomenon, the ingredients of the Danish welfare system lie in the rise of social democratic and agrarian political movements in the 19th century, and the communal spirit of compromise and reform goes back to the 18th century of beyond.


5. Freedom of information is key to government transparency

Scandinavian countries were some of the first countries to enact freedom-of-information laws. Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act dates back to 1766, for example, and Nordic countries have generally pushed to expand the European Union’s freedom-of-information directives more widely. Denmark’s most recent law, the Access to Public Administration Files Act, even includes certain private and public energy suppliers in the scope of what’s covered.

That comes with its own benefits. Denmark ranked first in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruptions Perception Index — the United States ranked just 17th, far behind Denmark, Finland (3rd), Sweden (4th) and Norway (5th). The ethos of good government and transparency infuses every level of government (and it’s one of the motivating themes of the hit television series Borgen, a three-season show about the personal and professional lives of Danish politicians and journalists).

The perception that the Nordics are an essentially corruption-free zone are another reason why businesses are so keen on relocating there.

But it’s also the kind of place where an official like Clinton would never be able to get away with keeping a secret server, unbeknownst to the Obama administration, to conduct official and unofficial state business alike.

6. Family leave policies are quite generous

In Denmark, parents receive a full year of maternity and paternity leave — mothers are guaranteed 18 weeks and fathers are guaranteed two weeks, with a further 32 weeks to be split up as between the two parents as they see fit. That’s aside from a guarantee of up to five weeks of vacation time annually for workers.

Though no one expects Sanders (or anyone else, for that matter) to introduce single-payer health care to the United States, there is a growing sense that the United States should offer at least some basic parental leave. American workers currently have no federal guarantee of maternity or paternity leave nor do they have a right to vacation leave — something that makes the United States an extreme outlier throughout the developed world.

This is one area where there’s cause for optimism. If Clinton, as widely expected, wins the Democratic nomination, she will be well-placed as the first female nominee of a major party to make this a chief policy priority. There’s a great symbolism in the notion that the first American woman in the presidency will also implement the first universal maternity leave policy.

But it’s an issue that could resonate with conservatives as well. In the United Kingdom, prime minister David Cameron and the Conservative Party campaigned on extending tax credits for child care. Though he ultimately abandoned it, former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, also a conservative, campaigned in 2013 on expanding paid parental leave. Certainly, social conservatives and Christian voters who value strong families might also champion a policy. It’s one area where, in an increasingly polarized political scene, both Republicans and Democrats might come to agree.


7. The population is more homogeneous —
and far less welcoming to immigrants

One of the theories behind the Nordic model’s success is that countries like Denmark have greater civic trust because they have small and, on the whole, homogeneous populations. That’s one of the reasons that critics say a Nordic-style approach would never work in such a sprawling and heterogeneous place like the United States.

But that also points to one of the darker sides of Danish policy.

Only recently, Denmark’s center-right government made global headlines for its unwelcoming attitude to mostly Muslim refugees arriving on European shores. It went so far as to take out Arabic-language advertisements in Lebanese newspapers noting that family reunification might not be possible and that public assistance for immigrants is now lower.

The message is clear — Denmark is not a particularly welcoming place for immigrants. Denmark, notably, opted out of the migration quota system agreed among the vast majority of EU nations earlier this year. In early December, Danes will vote in a referendum that could see the country ‘opt-out’ of certain justice and home affairs standards.

The anti-Islam and anti-migrant Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party) won more votes in the recent June 2015 snap elections than any other party, with the exception of former prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s center-left Socialdemokraterne (Social Democrats). As the Social Democrats’ left-wing allies lost votes, it remained for the third-placed center-right Venestre to form a minority government under current prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who depends on the People’s Party as well as other smaller center-right parties to govern.

The rise of the Danish far-right (and the Scandinavian far-right in general) has pushed both of the major parties toward less migrant-friendly positions. Even Thorning-Schmidt tried to co-opt that message earlier this year with billboards proclaiming that migrants to Denmark would have to find work.  One of Rasmussen’s first actions as prime minister was to enact, in August, on a highly divided vote, a measure that cuts benefits by 45% for immigrants who have not lived in Denmark for seven of the last eight years.

Sweden, which remains far more welcoming of migrants, especially Syrians and others from outside the European Union, has not responded to the refugee crisis with the same level of closed-mindedness as the Danish. Nevertheless, growing antipathy toward immigrants (in Denmark and Sweden alike) and increasingly multicultural Nordic populations will certainly test the ‘homogeneity theory’ in the years ahead.

8. There’s not just ‘one’ Nordic model

Generally speaking, it’s a mistake to refer to a single Nordic model, because the five countries that comprise the Nordics are actually very different. Denmark and Sweden, on one hand, spent much of the past half-millennium as colonial powers. Norway, Iceland and Finland, on the other hand, spent much of the past half-millennium as subjugated colonies — Iceland won its independence from Denmark only in 1944, and Norway won its independence from Sweden in 1905. Today, that filters through culture and geography — Stockholm and Copenhagen are imperial cities, while Oslo and Helsinki are not.

Norway’s vast oil wealth, in particular, makes it a special case that has elements of other Nordic states, but also the problems that many petrostates face. Finland’s longtime relationship with Russia gives it a certain sensibility in European geostrategic matters (and that explains why both it and Sweden are still not members of NATO).

Neither Iceland nor Norway are members of the European Union, lest their rich fish stocks be subject to competition from Spanish and Greek fishermen. While Finland is a member of the eurozone, both Denmark and Sweden have retained their own national currencies and control over their monetary policy.

All of which is to say that even Scandinavians can’t agree on which ingredients are most key to their ‘model’ — and that makes its export outside the northern European context all the more difficult.

Center-right looks to minority government after Danish election

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In an election race that finished as closely as polls predicted, the broad center-right ‘blue’ bloc won 90 seats in Denmark’s Folketing, while the broad center-left ‘red’ bloc of prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt won just 89.denmark flag

Though that’s a stupendous effort for Thorning-Schmidt and, especially, her Socialdemokraterne (Social Democrats), which actually gained seats and finished with the highest share of Denmark’s many political parties. Since winning the 2011 election, polls consistent showed Thorning-Schmidt’s coalition trailing by double digits, so the election result represents something of a comeback for the Danish left in general and for Thorning-Schmidt in particular.


Her coalition partners didn’t manage as well, though, so Thorning-Schmidt will not serve a second term as prime minister and, despite her success, she stepped down as the Social Democratic party leader after the narrow loss.

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RELATED: How Helle got her groove back in Denmark’s snap election

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The center-right’s victory means that former prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the leader of Denmark’s chief center-right party, Venestre, will once again return to power as head of a minority government, according to reports on Sunday. But Thursday’s vote is still something of a Pyrrhic victory for him, because his party finished with 19.5% of the vote, about 7% less than the Social Democrats and, more significantly, about 1.5% less than the anti-immigration, eurosceptic  Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party).

While the DF’s leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl (pictured above) didn’t demand the premiership, he will now be the chief driver of Danish government. Rasmussen is an amiable figure, but he’s been damaged by an expenses scandal and his party is now returning to power, despite the fact that it lost more seats (13) than any other party in the Folketing. Though the Danish People’s Party will conceivably his government from outside any formal coalition, there will be no doubt that Thulesen Dahl’s agenda — a populist approach to pensions and welfare spending, rolling back immigration (especially Muslim immigration), and chipping away at the free borders of the European Union’s Schengen zone (the party wants Denmark to leave the Schengen zone altogether) — will figure high on Rasmussen’s priority list. It also means that the Danish government will strongly back British prime minister David Cameron’s push for EU reform, in advance of a 2017 referendum on British membership in the European Union.

More thematically, the success of the Danish People’s Party is part of a broader story about the rise of the alternative right across Europe, especially throughout Scandinavia in recent years:

  • Norway’s anti-tax Framskrittspartiet (Progress Party) had a breakthrough performance in the 2009 election, winning 22.9% of the vote and becoming Norway’s second-largest party. In the September 2013 elections, it still won 16.6% of the vote, and its leader, Siv Jensen, serves as finance minister in Erna Solberg’s conservative minority government.
  • Last September, Sweden’s far-right Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats) won 12.9% of the vote to become the third-largest party in the country. Just one month into the premiership of center-left prime minister Stefan Löfven, the Sweden Democrats caused a political crisis that brought the country to the brink of a fresh snap election.
  • The similarly far-right Perussuomalaiset (PS, Finns Party) finished in third place in Finland’s elections with 17.6% of the vote in March 2015, and its leader, Timo Soini, a skeptic about future Greek bailouts, is now Finland’s foreign secretary.

It’s clear that the message of parties like the DF resounds with a significant portion of the northern European electorate, including in the United Kingdom and France, and immigration — from both inside the European Union and from Muslim emigrants from beyond — has a growing resonance. Even Thorning-Schmidt’s Social Democrats felt like they needed to take a harder line on the issue, with advertisements proclaiming that Danish immigrants should be working.

It’s not clear yet which parties Rasmussen will seek to form his minority government, but Thulesen Dahl’s tone seems to indicate that it won’t include the Danish People’s Party. But Rasmussen’s Liberals have just 34 seats — with support from the Liberal Alliance (13 seats), the Konservative Folkeparti (Conservative People’s Party (six seats), it gives Rasmussen just 53 seats.

Vestager’s profile hangs over Danish election


She’s not running for anything in Denmark’s parliamentary elections on Thursday, but even from Brussels, Margrethe Vestager, the country’s European commissioner for the high-profile competition portfolio, looms larger than just about anyone on the Danish political scene — included prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and her main challenger for the premiership.European_Uniondenmark flag

Less than a year into her tenure as the EU’s top cop on competition law, Vestager has moved forward with narrow charges (in the Commission’s parlance, a ‘Statement of Objections’) against Google for allegedly prioritizing search results from its own Google Shopping program over other results. Hardly a week later, she filed charges against the Russian state energy company, Gazprom, for anti-competitive behavior that the Commission argues resulted in higher prices in the Baltics, Poland and Bulgaria. In recent weeks, Vestager also open an investigation into whether Amazon was abusing its dominant market position to restrict innovation and competition in the e-book industry.

That’s made her, increasingly, a bête noire in the powerful Silicon Valley. Mike Honda, a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives for a California district representing Silicon Valley, denounced the charges in April, arguing that Google was instead one of the most ‘innovative and life-changing technologies in human history.’

It’s not just American and Russian companies — Vestager is also looking into allegations that Luxembourg’s aggressive tax deals with companies violated European Union state aid rules, even though most of the tax decisions came during the administration of Luxembourg’s prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, now the president of the European Commission and who nominated Vestager for the role last autumn. She’s also investigating several European governments for providing assistance to their respective utilities industries.

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RELATED: How Helle got her groove back in Denmark’s snap election

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Not since Mario Monti took on General Electric’s Jack Welch and Microsoft’s Bill Gates has an EU antitrust enforcer taken such an aggressive tone with companies operating in the EU marketplace. It’s certainly a more direct, even transparent way of proceeding that her predecessor, Spanish commissioner Joaquín Almunia, who preferred negotiating closed-door settlements — a tactic that did not work, so far, with Google. In a throwback to the Monti days, Vestager last week threatened to block GE’s bid to acquire the French energy business Alstom without further modifications to the proposed merger — and that’s after the French government last year stepped in to demand a better deal.  Continue reading Vestager’s profile hangs over Danish election

How Helle got her groove back in Denmark’s snap election


Not so long ago, British prime minister David Cameron suggested that his Danish counterpart, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, would make a good alternative candidate for the presidency of the European Commission.denmark flag

Thorning-Schmidt (pictured above) demurred the speculation. Ultimately, European leaders embraced former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker and instead of seeking a safe job in Brussels, Thorning-Schmidt became increasingly convinced that she could lead her center-left government to reelection in a vote originally expected in September.

A Rorschach test for EU economic policy?

Thorning-Schmidt called snap elections for June 18, hoping to take advantage of a growing sense of momentum. Indeed, she may have taken a different sort of comfort from Cameron, who last month won an even stronger mandate for a second term in his own general election. After a period of GDP contraction and fiscal tightening, Thorning-Schmidt is betting that nascent economy recovery and the promise of greater welfare spending in the years ahead will be enough to replicate Cameron’s feat in Denmark.

If she succeeds, both sides on the European debate over economic policy will try to claim victory. For the European center-right, a Thorning-Schmidt victory would provide more evidence that an electorate is willing to reward a government’s hard grind to demonstrate fiscal stability. For the European center-left, it would show the way forward for social democrats struggling to salvage, reform and reinvent the welfare state in an age of austerity.

Furthermore, as the second-most populous Nordic country, Denmark (with 5.7 million people) is a weathervane of all the recent political, cultural and economic trends across northern Europe — and where the region may be headed.

How Helle turned a near-certain defeat into a dead heat

Thorning-Schmidt is the leader of the Socialdemokraterne (Social Democrats), the largest party on the Danish left, and she leads an informal ‘red’ coalition of parties that may be willing to join forces for a broad leftist government after the election. Not surprisingly, she won sympathy from voters in the wake of a radical Islamic attack on a Copenhagen cafe and synagogue in February. Moreover, she is hoping that forecasts of 1.5% or greater GDP growth will overshadow the GDP contraction and fiscal contraction that marked the first half of her government. Continue reading How Helle got her groove back in Denmark’s snap election

How the ECB forced Switzerland’s hand


Almost as soon as it happened last Thursday, nearly every economist in the world started asking — just why, after three years of maintaining a currency floor for the Swiss franc, did the Swiss National Bank suddenly declare that it would no longer intervene in currency markets to keep the franc‘s value artificially low?

The truth is that we won’t fully know until Thursday, when the European Central Bank is expected to announce a bond-buying scheme that ECB president Mario Draghi has been pushing for months — according to reports, a €550 billion program that amounts to Europe’s first major attempt at introducing quantitative easing into its monetary policy as the threat of deflation creeps across the eurozone. But it’s becoming clearer that the two events are related.

Draghi’s announcement that Europe will join the Bank of England, the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan by dipping its toes into the waters of quantitative easing almost certainly forced the SNB’s hand last week. The looming ECB decision set into motion a set of domino actions throughout the world, starting with the SNB’s decision last week, which in turn caused a mini-crisis in Poland, where nearly half of the country’s mortgages are denominated in francs. It’s essentially the first major political challenge for Poland’s new prime minister Ewa Kopacz, who succeeded Donald Tusk last year when he became the president of the European Council.  Kopacz faces a tough election hurdle in elections that must be held this year before October.

Meanwhile, Denmark is now under pressure, too, with its central bank forced to lower interest rates in the face of speculation that, like Switzerland, it might be forced to abandon its permanent policy of pegging the Danish krone to the euro, under which the krone trades within a 2.25% band of a rate of 7.46 krone to the euro.

Suffice it to say we’ll know a lot more in 24 hours. For now, we’ve had almost a week to piece together our best understanding of the Swiss bombshell. Continue reading How the ECB forced Switzerland’s hand

The Duke Chapel brouhaha and US ‘soft’ foreign policy


Photo credit to Bill Majoros.

U.S. foreign policy isn’t just the stuff of policy papers, talks at Washington think tanks, strategy positions in Foggy Bottom and the work of establishing economic ties, trade links and military alliances drawn up in the bowels of the Pentagon.USflag

To borrow a concept from Joseph Nye, that’s all ‘hard’ foreign policy.

But there’s also a ‘soft’ foreign policy, and it’s the kind of thing that can equally affect foreign relations, often in explosive and unpredictable ways. Officials in tiny Denmark never anticipated their country would alienate the entire Muslim world when the Jyllands-Posten newspaper printed several disparaging images of the prophet Mohammed in 2005. Nor did French officials have a role in the publication, week after week for decades, of the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine, but last week’s horrific murders in Paris could become the focal point of French domestic and foreign policy discussion for weeks, months or even years to come.

So, too, the latest manufactured scandal on the American political scene, a decision by Duke University, a private university in Durham, North Carolina, to allow its chapel to be used for a weekly call to prayer for Muslim students. Under pressure from Christian groups, conservative activists and preachers like Franklin Graham, and in the face of several threats, according to Duke officials, the administration backed off todayInstead of using Duke Chapel, Muslim students will sound the prayer call from the quadrangle in front of the chapel, instead of from the chapel’s bell tower. 

It just so happens that I have some interest in this story because I am, myself, a graduate of Duke University. For whatever reason, Duke has found itself at the center of several controversies in recent years, from a 2001 incendiary advertisement regarding slavery reparations that we ran in our days in charge of the student newspaper, The Chronicle, to more serious issues, including prosecutorial abuse in the now-famous 2006 lacrosse rape case. The school’s most recent headlines involved a certain porn star amid its undergraduate student body. But I’m proud to say that Duke is at the center of this latest controversy, in particular, because universities should be precisely the place where students and free thinkers smash against the conventional boundaries of society, ideology and every other sacred cow.

As David Graham (another Dukie and Chronicle alum) writes for The Atlantic, the chapel issue is really less about religion than about the type of society that the United States wants to be in the 21st century, and he quotes Omid Safi, the director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, who really nails this concept:

“At the end of the day, this is not an Islam conversation,” Safi told me. “It’s an America conversation. It’s a ‘who do we want to be and how do we want to arrange and accommodate diversity?’ conversation. Are we a zero-sum society? Are you less of who you are if I am who I am?”

But we can’t really have a grand debate about freedom of religion or freedom of expression in the context of a private university. Government played no role in either enabling or restricting anyone’s religious rights on Duke’s campus. But that doesn’t mean the discussion won’t inform future US attitudes and the world’s impression of US attitudes toward the freedom of religious expression.

Just as in Denmark in 2006 and in France today, the catalyst of the debate comes not over laws and regulations so much as the cultural values, assumptions and norms that often, ultimately, inform laws, be it increasingly tougher Danish restrictions on immigration or the 2010 French law that prohibits public face coverings, such as the burqa that many Muslim women wear. Continue reading The Duke Chapel brouhaha and US ‘soft’ foreign policy

Uranium, sovereignty and corruption headline Greenland vote


It may seem quaint that misuse of just over €14,000 in personal and travel expenses could bring down a government, but that’s exactly why Greenlanders are going to the polls just 19 months after their last election — after a sudden September 30 scandal caused prime minister Aleqa Hammond to step down.greenland flagdenmark flag

Hammond, who stepped away from frontline politics two months ago, is sitting on the sidelines of Friday’s election, watching as her former deputy, acting prime minister Kim Kielsen tries to steer the governing Siumut (Forward), a center-left, moderately pro-sovereignty party, to a longer term in office.

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RELATED: Greenland’s election a case study in climate change, sovereignty, China, the EU and the Arctic’s future [March 2013]

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Amazingly, Kielsen has a real shot at winning Friday’s election, notwithstanding the fact that Hammond’s corruption woes are the immediately cause of the election. In part, that’s because Kielsen has run a humble campaign focused on his own reputation for honesty and appealing to traditional Greenlandic voters.


In part, it’s also because the chief opposition party, Inuit Ataqatigiit (‘Community of the People’), has pledged to slow down the government’s push to open up large parts of Greenland to international mining interests hoping to unlock the potential mineral wealth of the Arctic north. Its candidate for premier, Sara Olsvig (pictured above), entered politics only in 2011 as one of two members of Denmark’s parliament, the Folketing, and she is currently head of the Folketing‘s Arctic committee. Though she seemed a lock to become Greenland’s next premier when Hammond’s government collapsed, her hesitation with respect to Greenlandic mineral and oil development has, in part, stalled her campaign.

Inuit Ataqatigiit is even more leftist than Siumut, and it is stridently more in favor of Greenlandic independence, but it has also tried to balance the frothy excitement of a mining boom against the concept of sustainable development. That’s especially true in an era of climate change and melting glaciers in Greenland.

In one sense, you can think of the 2014 Greenlandic election as a choice between two imperfect ideals:

  • a more conservative approach to autonomy coupled with a more aggressive approach to the kind of mining and development that could give Greenland the economic basis for independence in the decades to come; or
  • a more aggressive approach to independence with a more hesitant approach to economic development that prioritizes the risks to the environment, local communities and other factors.

Traditionally, Siumut has controlled Greenlandic government since 1979, when Greenland, an ‘autonomous country’ within the Kingdom of Denmark, won self-rule, though the party only recently retook control of government in the March 2013 elections, following a four-year Inuit Ataqatigiit government led by local musician Kuupik Kleist.

No matter which party wins the November 28 election, the vote is unlikely to settle definitively either Greenland’s debate over the nature and pace of mining and development or its status vis-à-vis Denmark. That’s most of all because no one yet knows whether Greenland harbors the kind of oil or mineral wealth that could allow it to become a viable independent nation-state. The country currently receives a subsidy grant of around $600 million from the Danish government (and it still posted a budget deficit last year).

Continue reading Uranium, sovereignty and corruption headline Greenland vote

Swedish far-right could inadvertently deliver 3rd term to Reinfeldt


When Swedes finish voting on Sunday in general election, they might find that, to their astonishment, the only party with the seats to deliver a majority coalition is the one that both the right and left have treated as politically radioactive for years.Sweden

In the final days of the campaign, the race has tightened between the four-party center-right alliance headed by two-term prime minister Frederik Reinfeldt (pictured above) and the loose confederation of social democrats, greens and socialists that would rally behind Stefan Löfven, the former labor union leader who now heads Sweden’s center-left Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti (Swedish Social Democratic Party), which essentially created the Swedish social welfare state in the 20th century.

If the results are close, it could leave the balance of power in the hands of the far-right, anti-immigrant Sverigedemokraterna (SD, Sweden Democrats), even though the party entered the final week of the campaign crippled after news reports revealed racist online commentary of several of the party’s candidates.

Though Löfven’s Social Democrats (and the left, generally) have held a polling lead for much of the the past year, a September 1-4 Sifo poll from showed the left’s generic lead falling to less than 4.9%. A more recent September 8-9 Sifo survey showed the left recovering a greater margin of 7.8%. But up to one-third of the Swedish electorate may still be undecided going into the election on Sunday, making predictions difficult.

Despite Löfven’s lead, many voters approve of Reinfeldt’s performance over the past eight years, most especially as his record relates to the Swedish economy. Sweden has emerged from both the 2008-09 global financial crisis and the 2010-12 eurozone crisis with stronger economic growth than much of the rest of the European Union. While unemployment is still probably too high at around 8%, the rate is slowly declining. But Swedes don’t dislike Reinfeldt. It’s that that Swedes are ready for a change, and Löfven’s moderate social democratic approach would bring more continuity than rupture.

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RELATED: One month out, Löfven and Social Democrats lead in Sweden

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Though the two Sifo polls this month showed support for the Sweden Democrats dropping from 10.4% to 8.9%, even a ‘poor’ showing would eclipse their previous high point in the 2010 election, when they won 5.7% of the vote. The 2010 breakthrough was a watershed moment for Sweden’s far right — much to the dismay of the rest of the political spectrum. Suddenly, a far-right party that had never held any seats in the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, now held 20.

So even if the Sweden Democrats under-perform in the 2014 election (they won around 9.7% in the May European elections), they could still hold a large enough bloc of seats to deny either the Reinfeldt-led right or the Löfven-led left a majority.

Though the current center-right government has only a minority in the Riksdag, it has often unofficially leaned on the Sweden Democrats for support, though it’s also turned to the Miljöpartiet (Green Party) as necessary on issues like refugees and asylum.

Continue reading Swedish far-right could inadvertently deliver 3rd term to Reinfeldt

The 13 key EU players in the proposed Juncker Commission


On Wednesday, the incoming president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker (pictured above), released full details on the proposed commissioners within his Commission, which will serve as the chief executive and administrative body of the European Union between 2014 and 2019.European_Union

The most important feature of the proposed Juncker Commission is that he’s introduced the greatest amount of hierarchy in an institution that used to be flat. It’s not a secret that some portfolios have always been more desirable than others, especially as the Commission has expanded to include all 28 member-states. But Juncker has introduced a first vice president and five vice presidents, who will also serve alongside Italy’s foreign minister Federica Mogherini, who was appointed two weeks ago to serve as Commission vice president and high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.

The delegation of so much power to five ‘super-commissioners’ with roving, supervisory briefs indicates that Juncker intends to be a much less hands-on Commission president that his predecessor, José Manuel Barroso. But it also reflects a Commission that, including Luxembourg’s Juncker, contains five former prime ministers (Finland, Slovenia, Latvia and Estonia).  It also contains four incumbents (Germany, Sweden, Bulgaria and Austria) who have served throughout the full second term of the Barroso Commission. That makes the Juncker Commission possibly the most distinguished in EU history.

Each commissioner must be approved by the European parliament and, while individual nominees have had troubles in the past, the parliament typically approves the vast majority of a Commission president’s appointments, all of whom were nominated by their respective national governments.

With nine women, it’s not as unbalanced as feared even a week or two ago, and with 14 members of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), eight members of the center-left Party of European Socialists (PES) and five members of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), it generally reflects the results of the May 25 European parliamentary elections, though some social democrats and socialists are grumbling that the left doesn’t have enough representation.

So what can we expect from this illustrious college of commissioners?

Here’s a look at the 13 most important players in the proposed Commission (aside from Juncker and Mogherini, of course). Continue reading The 13 key EU players in the proposed Juncker Commission

Forecasting the EU power summit, part 2: Europe’s next Council president


When the European Council meets on Saturday for a summit of all 28 leaders within the European Union, it will not only choose a new high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, but also a new president of the European Council.European_Union

It’s still very much a new role within the matrix of EU power — it was created only in 2007 as part of the Treaty of Lisbon, and Herman Van Rompuy, a former liberal Belgian prime minister, was selected in 2009 to take the role when the Lisbon Treaty came into effect.

For a position that had been, perhaps too optimistically described as the ‘presidency of Europe,’ Van Rompuy has hardly been the European Union’s George Washington. For more than three decades, the ‘president’ of the European Council, which is really just the collection of all 28 EU leaders, was the head of state or government of the country that held the six-month rotating Council presidency. That Council presidency still rotates (Italy is currently heading the Council), but the Lisbon Treaty created a full-time figure who could fill up to two 2.5-year terms to direct Council and EU policy.

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RELATED: Forecasting the  EU power summit, part 1:
Europe’s next high representative

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But it hasn’t exactly been clear when the power of the European Commission, the chief executive and administrative body of the European Union, ends and the European Council presidency’s power begins. Often in the past five years, the roles of Van Rompuy and outgoing Commission president José Manuel Barroso, a former conservative Portuguese prime minister, have blurred.

Defining those lines will certainly be one of the most vital institutional issues that incoming Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, a former Christian democratic prime minister of Luxembourg,  and his Council counterpart, will determine in the next five years.

Even in the past 24 hours, news reports give the young Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini an even greater edge to become Europe’s next high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, seemingly eclipsing the chances of Polish prime minister Radek Sikorski and Bulgarian European commissioner Kristalina Georgieva.

But it’s clear that the Council presidency role will follow from two factors — first, the June decision to appoint Juncker as the Commission president and, second, the decision in the next 36 hours over Europe’s foreign policy supremo.

If it’s Mogherini, as expected, the conventional wisdom is that, as Mogherini is a center-left, Italian woman, the Council presidency must go to an official from Central and Eastern Europe. That points to Polish prime minister Donald Tusk (pictured above) as the wide frontrunner for the Council presidency. If, for some reason, Tusk turns down the idea of moving from Warsaw to Brussels, former Latvian prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis,  former Estonian prime minister Andrus Ansip or former Finnish prime minister Jykri Katainen, all of whom are already candidates to serve as their respective countries’ commissioners in Brussels, are ready alternatives. 

If it’s Sikorski, which now seems less and less likely, the conventional wisdom is that a center-right Polish official will require the balance of a center-left woman. The frontrunner would then be Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

If it’s the dark-horse candidate, Georgieva, a Bulgarian and the current European  commissioner for humanitarian aid, there won’t be incredible pressure to appoint a woman as Council president, but there will be pressure to appoint a center-left official, which still favors Thorning-Schmidt. Nevertheless, a surprise choice like Georgieva for foreign policy could open deliberations to truly dark-horse candidates, including liberals like Ansip or former Commission presidential candidate and former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt. 

Tusk, therefore, remains the frontrunner.  Continue reading Forecasting the EU power summit, part 2: Europe’s next Council president

A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 3)

Nearly a week after the European elections, the reverberations are still shaking the entire continent, on at least two levels — the consequences of the historic level of eurosceptic parties elected across Europe and in terms of the growing battle between the European Parliament and the European Council over electing the next European Commission president. European_Union

In the first part of a Suffragio series examining the results of the May 25 European parliamentary elections, I focused on the five most populous countries in the European Union: the United Kingdom and France, where eurosceptic parties won the greatest share of the vote; Germany, where chancellor Angela Merkel won another strong victory; Italy, where prime minister Matteo Renzi won a near-landslide mandate just three months into his premiership; and Spain, where both traditional parties lost support to a growing constellation of anti-austerity movements — so much so that Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the leader of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), Spain’s traditional center-left party, resigned

In the second part, I examined the results in nine more countries — Poland, Romania, The Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Hungary and Sweden.

In the third and final part, I examine the results in the remaining 14 countries of the European Union. Continue reading A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 3)

A rogues’ gallery of the EU’s top 13 eurosceptic parties

skepticismAs voters in 28 European countries prepare to head to the polls, beginning on May 22 and running through May 25, no one knows whether Europe’s center-left or center-right will win more seats, and no one knows who will ultimately become the next president of the European Commission.European_Union

But the one thing upon which almost everyone agrees is that Europe’s various eurosceptic parties are set for a huge victory — not enough seats to determine the outcomes of EU legislation and policymaker, perhaps, but enough to form a strong, if disunited, bloc of relatively anti-federalist voices. Voters, chiefly in the United Kingdom, France and Italy, are set to cast strong protest votes that could elect more than 100 eurosceptic MEPs.

In some countries, such as Spain, euroscepticism is still a limited force the center-left opposition Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) is tied for the lead with the governing center-right Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy. But Spain is quickly becoming an outlier as eurosceptic parties are springing up in places where unionist sentiment once ran strong.

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RELATED: In Depth: European parliamentary elections
RELATED: The European parliamentary elections are really four contests

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Of course, not all eurosceptics are created equally. Some anti-Europe parties have been around for decades, while others weren’t even in existence at the time of the last elections in 2009. Some are virulently xenophobic, far-right or even neo-Nazi in their outlooks, while others are cognizably on the more mainstream conservative / leftist ideological spectrum. Some seek nothing short of their country’s withdrawal from the European Union altogether, while others seek greater controls on immigration. Some are even pro-Europe in the abstract, but oppose eurozone membership. That’s one of the reasons why eurosceptics have had so much trouble uniting across national lines — the mildest eurosceptic parties abhor the xenophobes, for example.

If everyone acknowledges that eurosceptic parties will do well when the votes are all counted on Sunday, no one knows whether that represents a peak of anti-Europe support, given the still tepid economy and high unemployment across the eurozone, or whether it’s part of a trend that will continue to grow in 2019 and 2024.

With 100 seats or so in the European Parliament, eurosceptics can’t cause very many problems. They can make noise, and they stage protests, but they won’t hold up the EU parliamentary agenda. With 200 or even 250 seats, though, they could cause real damage. There’s no rule that says that eurosceptics can’t one day win the largest block of EP seats, especially so long as most European voters ignore Europe-wide elections or treat them as an opportunity to protest unpopular national government.

For now, though, they’re all bound to cause plenty of trouble for their more mainstream rivals at the national level, and in at least five countries, they could wind up with the largest share of the vote. So it’s still worth paying attention to them.

Without further ado, here are the top 13 eurosceptic parties to keep an eye on as the results are announced on Sunday:

Continue reading A rogues’ gallery of the EU’s top 13 eurosceptic parties

How Goldman Sachs nearly collapsed Denmark’s government last week


A crisis over whether to approve the sale of part of Denmark’s state energy company to Goldman Sachs divides the country’s beleaguered minority government, leaving the first female Danish prime minister and her administration in jeopardy. denmark flag

It sounds like an episode of Borgen, the acclaimed television show about Danish political intrigue and the human costs of public office.*

But it was real-life Danish politics last week, when Helle Thorning-Schmidt pushed through a controversial sale of stock amounting to 18% of DONG (Danish Oil and Natural Gas) Energy, the national energy company, to Goldman Sachs, even though nearly seven out of 10 Danish voters oppose the sale and worry that Goldman will hold too much power over management and other key decisions.

Thorning-Schmidt (pictured above) leads the Socialdemokraterne (Social Democrats), the largest center-left party in Denmark.  In the September 2011 parliamentary elections, the Social Democrats actually lost a seat.  The largest party today in the Danish parliament is Venstre (Liberals, literally the ‘Left’), Denmark’s primary center-right party.


But the strength of other leftist parties in the 179-member Folketing, the Danish parliament, allowed Thorning-Schmidt to pull together a minority government with the coalition support of two additional parties.  The first is Det Radikale Venstre (Danish Social Liberal Party, literally the ‘Radical Left’), a centrist liberal party that gained eight seats in the 2011 election.  Its leader, Margrethe Vestager, currently serves as deputy prime minister and minister for economic and interior affairs.

The second is the Socialistisk Folkeparti (the Socialist People’s Party), a democratic socialist party that lost seven seats in 2011.  Accustomed to opposition, the party joined government only for the first time since 1959, and its leader Villy Søvndal became foreign minister.  But Søvndal stepped down in September 2012, due to criticism within the party about the 2011 losses and sniping that he was focusing more on government than on the party leadership.  and in the ensuing leadership contest in October 2012, Annette Vilhelmsen defeated Astrid Krag.  Though many party leaders supported Krag, Vilhelmsen’s victory represented a triumph for the party’s left wing, though the party never fully united behind Vilhelmsen’s leadership.  Vilhelmsen clashed often with her coalition partners over economic policy, and it was Vilhelmsen’s decision to pull the party out of Thorning-Schmidt’s coalition at the end of last week, declaring that it wouldn’t be a part of government ‘at all costs.’   Continue reading How Goldman Sachs nearly collapsed Denmark’s government last week