How Denmark’s Social Democrats stole far-right ‘thunder’ on migration

Fear that success of hardline asylum policy in Denmark may cause ‘race to the bottom’ across Europe

In many parts of Europe the far right is set to top the polls in June’s elections by capitalising on voters’ concerns about migration, but not in Denmark. There, the main centre-left party has successfully prevented a surge from the extreme right in recent years by adopting a similarly hard line on asylum policy.

The Social Democrats fought and won a general election in 2019 on the back of promises to be strict on immigration and to increase public spending. The government passed legislation to allow it to process asylum seekers’ claims outside of Europe, agreeing a deal with Rwanda that the British government later sought to emulate.

Although it ultimately failed to put the plan into practice, Denmark is part of a large group of countries pushing for the European Union to facilitate similar measures.

Led by Mette Frederiksen, the Social Democrats remained in power following elections in 2022, at the head of a coalition that bridged traditional left-right lines. Polls predict it will comfortably remain the most popular party in the European Parliament elections, which take place in Denmark on June 9th.

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Suat Alper Orhan, a University of Flensburg academic researching the party’s shift on asylum, said the Social Democrats “took the thunder away” from the far right in Denmark. “It didn’t happen anywhere else in Europe, that’s the thing that we can’t really explain,” he said. “Immigration has been a salient issue in Denmark since the early 2000s. It started to be politicised early on.”

The backdrop to the centre left’s dramatic pivot was the 2015 migration crisis, when the number of asylum seekers and migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean soared. National anxiety in Denmark over the prospect of large increases in arrivals made it easier to change positions “without the party burning down” internally, Orhan said.

If the aim of the hardline approach was to discourage people from seeking international protection in Denmark, it is working. In the first four months of this year just 747 people claimed asylum, according to figures from the ministry of immigration. The highest number of arrivals in recent years was in 2022 when about 4,600 people sought asylum in Denmark. In comparison, 13,651 people sought asylum in Ireland during the same year, with 6,778 arrivals in the first four months of this year.

The new direction taken by the Social Democrats around 2015 may also have been a response to the far-right Danish People’s Party starting to peel away some of its working-class voters, Orhan said. The centre-left group largely succeeded in taking away the far right’s “main political weapon” and “defused” immigration as a political issue, he said.

Anders Vistisen, an MEP with the Danish People’s Party, admitted the Social Democrats stance on asylum hurt the far right’s vote. “It has impacted our voting share that we have competition on migration,” he said. “Of course we still want to go further, but in relative terms to other countries, especially western European countries, there is consensus in the Danish debate to have a strict line on migration and that is not really challenged.”

The Danish People’s Party has been around since the mid-1990s and from 2001 onwards held more than 20 of the 179 seats in the national parliament. It made significant gains in the 2015 parliamentary elections and won 37 seats, but has since fallen from that high point, returning 16 seats in the 2019 and just five two years ago.

In a recent poll commissioned by Euronews, the party was hovering around support levels of 5 per cent, while the Social Democrats were clear front-runners on 21 per cent.

A new right-wing populist party, Denmark Democrats, led by former immigration minister Inger Stojberg, currently poses more of a threat electorally but is still some way behind the government party.

Vistisen still believes illegal immigration is a big issue for voters in the coming European elections. The Danish MEP said the recent EU migration pact to overhaul and toughen asylum policy did not go far enough. “I think it has put a bandage on an open leg fracture, it is not going to have a significant effect.”

Despite passing a law in 2021 aiming to send asylum seekers to African countries such as Rwanda to have their claims processed, the Danish government was unable to bring the plan to fruition. It is now working with other EU countries, such as Italy, Austria, Poland and the Netherlands, to push for more leeway from Brussels to pursue such deals.

In a joint May 15th letter to the European Commission, Danish minister for immigration Kaare Dybvad and counterparts from 14 other EU countries said member states should have the “possibility” of being able to transfer asylum applicants to a “safe third-country alternative”, to reduce pressure on national asylum systems.

Eva Singer, director of asylum rights at the Danish Refugee Council, said the commission had criticised Denmark’s Rwanda plan at the time, but now appeared to have changed its line. In the years since, the commission has struck deals with northern African countries such as Tunisia and Libya to try to curb the numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

Other countries trying to copy the approach of Denmark to discourage asylum seekers could lead to a “race to the bottom” on migration policy across Europe, Singer said.

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