by Prof. Stefan Hedlund

At the peak of the European migrant crisis, Germany and Sweden took the moral lead in welcoming refugees. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be long remembered for her claim that Wir schaffen es, “We will manage it.” In Sweden, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven took a similar stand, proudly proclaiming that “Our country does not build walls.” In 2015, while Germany took in one million asylum seekers, Sweden (with a tenth of the German population) took in 165,000.

Meanwhile, wedged in between its two morals-driven neighbors, Denmark made it abundantly clear that refugees were not welcome. As the trek of migrants reached its border with Germany, the government adopted a wave-through policy. Police formed cordons along the road leading to Sweden, where welcoming committees stood ready.

The Danish example may serve as a crucial reminder to other European nations of how moralizing politics can obscure the vital interplay between migration and a sustainable welfare state.

The crackdown

Having come to power in June 2015, the center-right government of Lars Lokke Rasmussen (2015-2019) made a point of introducing the strictest immigration rules in Europe. In January 2016, it made waves by adopting a new law allowing police to search asylum seekers for cash and valuables that could be confiscated to defray the costs of processing their applications.

Some of the ensuing legislation was general. Temporary residence permits were to be issued for one or two years only and could be revoked in several situations. Family reunification applications for partners under 24 years of age were to be refused.

Other regulations were aimed at Muslims. They included a ban on wearing face coverings, like a burqa or a niqab, in public places. A new law required immigrants to shake hands with a state official during the citizenship pledge ceremony, regardless of religious belief regarding physical contact with the opposite sex.

A fundamental milestone was marked with the 2017 “ghetto law.” Aimed at eradicating lawlessness in neighborhoods dominated by the Muslim population, the legislation called on public housing corporations to sell off some apartments to wealthier newcomers and envisioned that some unredeemable parts would be demolished. Children living in the “ghettos” would be required to attend at least 25 hours of classes per week to learn Danish values. (Very small children, from age one, in troubled neighborhoods would be forced away from their parents and placed in mandatory day care centers to be inculcated with Danish values. The idea is to eradicate ghettos both physically and mentally.) Asylum seekers insisting on remaining in such “ghettos” would have their benefits reduced. Crimes committed there would earn double penalties and special “visitation zones,” where police can stop and search at will, were established.

In December 2018, the Danish government approved the introduction of a restrictive facility to house asylum seekers that have committed crimes but cannot be deported. Located on the remote Lindholm Island, with no permanent inhabitants, the facility would house some 100 people.

In February 2019, a new immigration law stated that refugees must be deported back to their home countries as soon as it is legal to do so.

Driving the message home, Danish Minister for Immigration, Integration and Housing Inger Stojberg (2015-2019) had a counter installed on the ministry website tracking the number of laws passed to restrict migration. When it reached 50, she posted a picture on social media that showed her serving cake to celebrate. She also published a comment claiming that Muslim bus drivers and hospital workers fasting during Ramadan pose a safety risk to the community.

Ms. Stojberg made no secret of the fact that her iPad has a screensaver showing the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad that caused massive outrage among Muslims when published by the leading Danish daily Jyllands-Posten in 2005. Also, after parliament passed the Lindholm Island project, she noted that “They are unwanted in Denmark. And they will feel like that.”

Change of tide

The combination of stricter legislation and public officials signaling that migrants from Muslim countries were not welcome in Denmark has had an impact. In 1997, half of all immigrants seeking asylum and family reunion were from non-Nordic countries. In 2017, some 65 percent of new residents were international students and labor migrants, with family reunification cases making up only 13 percent. Eleven years later, refugees accounted for only two percent of all foreigners granted residence permits.

All told, it is not surprising that Denmark has attracted much venom from circles advocating liberal migration policies. The main problem with accusations of racism and xenophobia is that they do not take into account Denmark’s track record of both tolerance and liberalism – values that, arguably, have sunk deeper roots in that country than nearly anywhere else. Denmark routinely scores at the very top of international prestige rankings. It is both one of the least corrupt nations in the world and the United Nations leader in sustainable development indicators.

The easy-going nature of Danish society is distinctly reflected in its reluctance to intervene in how people live their lives. Denmark belatedly and reluctantly introduced bans on smoking.  Alcoholic drinks are sold in supermarkets. Prostitution is legal. In Copenhagen’s Christiania “free zone,” soft drugs like cannabis are sold freely. Denmark was among the pioneers in championing LGBT rights and the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage. In stark contrast to stadium-goers in other European countries, Danish football fans are known as “rooligans” – a wordplay on the Danish world rolig, which translates as “peaceful.”

Is it possible that what is perhaps the most tolerant society in the world could have suddenly become a hotbed for racist and xenophobic mobilization? Or is there another explanation?

The Danes’ motives

One of the main reasons why so many Danes routinely tell pollsters that their country is a great place to live is clearly linked to the achievements of their welfare state. In addition to having the lowest poverty rate in the world, Denmark offers its citizens free healthcare, excellent childcare, generous parental leave, free higher education and much more. What makes the question of immigration so controversial for the citizens is their belief that the very expensive and generous Danish welfare state cannot coexist with open borders.

Nobel Prize-winning American economist Milton Friedman put it simply: “It’s just obvious you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.” The legitimacy of high taxation that is needed to support generous welfare benefits requires all participants to share the fundamental values of solidarity that preclude freeloading and stigmatize living on welfare if it can be at all avoided.

The problem that looms so large in present-day Europe is that immigration activists appeal not to economic common sense but moral sensitivities. They claim that compassion requires generous migration policies, irrespective of the cost. Indeed, merely suggesting that there may be an upper limit to the number of migrants that can be integrated is routinely branded as racism.

Experience shows that the prospects for successful integration tend to hinge on what region in the world the migrants come from. As long as migrants arrived from countries with social and cultural norms similar to Denmark’s, its citizens and leaders maintained a welcoming attitude. Immigrants joined the labor force and there were few cultural clashes.

The first harbinger of trouble to come arrived with the attacks by the Islamist terror group al-Qaeda against the United States in 2001. Then came the outrage surrounding the publication of the Muhammad cartoons. The violent response to the 2005 publication of such cartoons by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten served to galvanize many Danes against Islam, and thus to pave the way for draconian measures against Muslim immigrants in particular. In 2010, Denmark began tightening its laws on immigration.

Social welfare for asylum seekers was reduced, as was the duration of temporary residence permits. The “hold period” before family unification could begin was extended from one to three years. Subsequent studies have shown th