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Cold comfort in Copenhagen

The Danes are considered to be among the happiest people in the world. But they can be clannish – and demographic change has unsettled many

The First Gravedigger was talking about Hamlet, knowingly. The prince had been sent to England because he was mad, he confided. In fact, the gravedigger was talking to Hamlet, unknowingly. It wouldn’t matter if he didn’t recover in England, he added. “Why?” asked Hamlet. “’Twill not be seen in him there. There the men are as mad as he.” A great gag for the groundlings. Not so funny right now.

On a fresh autumn morning I stood near the ramparts of Kronborg Slot, the magnificent coastal pile better known as Elsinore Castle, and asked the passers-by if they thought the Brexit vote indicated that the British had indeed gone mad. “Well, I wouldn’t have done it if I were you,” said retired teacher Lars Langskov.

But there were other opinions. “I would love to have the chance to vote Leave,” said estate agent Niels Christian. “I’m not into decisions being made in Brussels.” And according to my unscientific sample, Mette Fredensborg Kroun, on the flower stall, spoke for Denmark: “They’re all crazy, the politicians. It’s all money, fighting and corruption.”

Perhaps people were just being pityingly polite to me: more professional polls tell a different story. For years, when Britain was the EU’s class lummox, flashing V-signs at the teachers when their backs were turned, Denmark was the one laughing at our japes. Now Britain has expelled itself, our close ally and acolyte has joined the goody-goodies. The latest Euromonitor survey shows the Danes giving the EU an unprecedented 77 per cent approval rating.

The castle, for obvious historic reasons, stands at the narrowest part of the Øresund, the strait between Sweden and Denmark. Forty miles south is the Øresund Bridge, best known to most of us for fictional murders even more improbable than the Elsinore carnage. In reality it is at the heart of perhaps the EU’s most remarkable and successful trans-national project. Since opening in 2000 the bridge has produced its own form of millenarianism: the metropolitan areas of Copenhagen, the Danish capital, and the Swedish city of Malmö have effectively merged into one.

Booming Copenhagen was chafing at its geographical bounds; Malmö needed regeneration. Copenhagen property was impossibly expensive, even in 2000; now commuters whizz between the two by train and car. (Since both countries have retained their old separate currencies, this has, among many other things, led to a near-cashless society.)

The whole region is now known as Greater Copenhagen, evidently with the agreement of the Swedish government. What could be more European than that? Imagine if a similarly linked metropolis sprang up around the Channel Tunnel and the British prime minister said to the French president: “Let’s call it Greater Folkestone.”

Yet maybe my sample spoke a greater truth. The Danes have historic reasons to be sceptical about any project led by the Germans. And the Scandinavians certainly don’t see themselves as part of some amorphous Euromass or even Scandimass. For instance, the more northerly Nordics all regard the Danes as subtropical fun-lovers. The journalist Per Thiemann, who covers Brexit for the newspaper Politiken, told me he once had a Norwegian girlfriend. “Oh, you Danes,” she said one day, “you’re the Brazilians of Scandinavia!”

The seaside town of Hornbæk, with a nice beach that is sunbathable for, ooh, several days in the average summer, likes to be called “Scandinavia’s St Tropez”. No one ever sang “Wonderful, wonderful Stockholm” and not just because Copenhagen scanned better. “Compared to Stockholm, Copenhagen is like Paris,” says Mart Kuldkepp, a Scandinavianist who teaches at University College London. The booze here is cheap too, to the Swedes if not to me.

However, the Danes are above all pragmatic. Occupied in the war, they avoided heroic resistance, secured a niche as the least worst hellhole under the Reich but – their finest hour – quietly spirited 90 per cent of Danish Jews across the Øresund to neutral Sweden. Perhaps that mindset endures: suffer in silence, work round it discreetly. As one politician explained to me: “People here have seen the way the British are being kicked around in the negotiations. They think, ‘If that’s happening to the Brits, what would happen to a small nation like ours if we tried to quit? Brussels wouldn’t even pick up the phone to us.’”

Denmark has already had eight European referendums – some on details, some of them giving what Brussels called the wrong answer, a situation that was then resolved by EU bullying. “Once the debate starts, it seems to gravitate towards those against the EU,” said Jesper Thobo-Carlsen, Politiken’s international reporter. “Whether to stay in is not a question the politicians want to ask.”

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This was the autumn break in Copenhagen and a perfect day: mid-October, mellow sun, gentle leaf-fall. The Danes flocked to the Tivoli Gardens. It is hard to overstate the place of Tivoli in Danish iconography. Next to the flag, of which they are unusually fond; ahead of the monarchy. (Michael Booth, in his enjoyable book on Scandinavia, The Almost Nearly Perfect People, says “I see the Tivoli is open” is code for “Your flies are undone”.) It is a funfair, crammed between the main station and the town hall, dating back to 1843, skilfully updated, lovingly maintained. It is as if Alton Towers were in King’s Cross.

The generations were there in force, often three of them: excited kids; edgy parents, half their mind still in the office; and twinkling grandparents, practically all of whom would themselves have been through this same rite of Danish passage, as their own grandparents did before them. It took me a while to realise the significance of this. These children were the blonde kids from sweet suburbs who have traditionally filled the place. Yet that’s not quite how Denmark is these days. And the new Danes were nowhere to be seen.

Later I was told that migrant families preferred the suburban alternative, Bakken, where you pay only for the rides, not to stand and watch. Nonetheless, the extent of the segregation was startling. Thirteen per cent of Denmark’s 5.8 million people are now defined as recent migrants (including Danish-born descendants), two-thirds of them non-Western.

This is a country that prides itself on its social cohesion, its welfare state and the way it has updated the old model. This includes what they call – even in Danish – flexicurity. Stephen Kinnock, the British Labour MP married to the former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, is a great admirer of it. “Employers are given a pretty free hand to hire and fire, but they are paying for a Rolls-Royce safety net,” he explained. “If you are unemployed, you are looked after, even assigned to a headhunter paid for by the state. Nobody expects to have a job for life any more but, if your company goes under, it’s not the end of the world. It makes a huge amount of sense.”

And there is a widespread feeling, certainly among the Danes, that they have begun to crack the problem of dealing with the transition from a homogeneous country to something else. Their right-wingers, the Danish People’s Party, emerged in the 1990s and, though still outside government, it has exerted its influence on both policy and the consensus.

“The Danish right had its roots in the neoliberal criticism of social democracy. The Sweden Democrats had their roots in neo-Nazism,” says Kuldkepp. “Immigration was politicised much earlier in Denmark. So the right has been co-opted into the system. In Sweden there was an unwillingness to engage. Only last year in Sweden there was a debate about whether you could even collect data on race.”

The Swedes made it hard for the new arrivals to work and even learn Swedish. The Danes were sceptical about importing young brides and allowing families to reunite on their territory, but focused on a proactive resettlement policy. Sometimes this produces jarring headlines: up-country maverick mayors have threatened Muslims with compulsory pork-eating in school and forced handshakes at citizenship ceremonies.

There are now plans to compel parents who do not speak Danish to send their infants to state nurseries. This seems to me legitimate tough love: we should know by now that immigration without integration can only lead to disaster. Yet there is a broader question involving Denmark itself. Can any incomer – of whatever colour or religion – be fully accepted into Danish society? There is cause to wonder.


Standing together: Denmark prides itself on its social cohesion and its welfare system

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In the autumn of 2016, shortly after the Brexit vote, the more excitable sections of the British press became obsessed with hygge (pronounced, roughly, hoo-gah), the Danish word for cosiness. It appeared to involve a roaring fire, candles (very big in Denmark), a sofa and a woman wearing a Sarah Lund sweater and a come-hither look. This was a mistranslation of hygge on almost every level. It isn’t for two, and it isn’t for you.

“I think the Danes live their lives in chapters,” said a British businessman married to a Dane. “Each period in their life, their family, their clubs. And every Christmas you have a reunion with smorgasbord and schnapps. Hygge is catching up with your old mates who you might not see from December to December. The Danes stay in touch and they never let go: they can only be cosy with people they know. The relationships are much less transient than in the UK.

“It can sometimes seem that your life is on train tracks. I’ve been to dozens of 40th and 50th birthday parties, and everyone speaks. At weddings there’s a toastmaster and everybody who wants to speak goes to him and, oh my God, the longer it goes on the more rambling the speeches.”

The sociologist Richard Jenkins, quoted by Booth, sees hygge as “normative to the point of coercive”. And Ben Rosamond, professor of politics at the University of Copenhagen and a double-outsider – a Briton who lives on the Swedish side of the bridge – sees hygge as something of a societal problem: “It’s actually a very ritualised way of performing Danishness. It’s about companionship and bonds. But there may be a dark side because if you can’t get in, it’s a bit of an issue. This is a society where the entry barriers are quite high.”

Ian Manners, another British-born professor in the same department, told me he went to a parliamentary hearing in his early days in the country and noted that there was much friendly banter between those on all sides of the argument. He remarked on this to a colleague. “Yes,” came the answer. “Everyone in this room knows everyone else in this room. Everyone knows what everyone else is going to say. Except you.”

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On the streets of Danish cities, you often hear Danish teenagers talking in English, even to each other. The vast majority of the population, especially those under 40, can speak English when necessary. It is similar across the Nordic belt, down into Holland and Flanders, and in most of the other small countries of Europe, though Denmark may be the most extreme case. I had always assumed this was to do with the brilliance of their educational system and/or a national awareness that the English – or American – language was for them the key that unlocked the world.

Somewhere in Denmark, I realised something. What do children do before they can read? They watch TV. What do they watch? Cartoons. Where do most cartoons come from? The US. In larger countries, France especially, foreign programmes get dubbed but that’s not financially viable in smaller markets. Even if there are subtitles, the kids can’t read them. So what happens? They become naturally bilingual, which can then be reinforced in school.

Since Anglophone visitors have no need to learn even the basics of Danish, it is easy to assume that these people are exactly like us, which makes the subtle distinctions that much harder to grasp. And the mysteries more mysterious. It is also true that these smallish countries – especially those with five or six million people – are particularly prone to elite clannishness. (And remember where “clan” comes from; an independent Scotland might be the most hygge-ish of all.)

Still, it all seems to make the Danes happy. At least, they are regularly at or near the top of the UN Happiness Index – way above Brazil – although they have lately been superseded by the notoriously gloomy Finns. I am very suspicious of such surveys, though. Doesn’t it depend, in these latitudes, whether you ask people in February or July? Whether you are gloriously in love or have just been chucked? On the precise nuance of “happy”, when it is translated? On how different nations respond to nosy parkers?

The UN certainly doesn’t ask the four-legged inhabitants. Leaving Denmark, I travelled south by train for more than four hours through Jutland, the country’s agricultural heartland, the home of Danish bacon and butter, passing hundreds of farms; and through Randers, the town that told its schools “Let them eat pork”, as a patriotic imperative. It was a fine autumn morning, perfect rootling weather.

I never saw a single pig. Or a sheep. Or a cow – until the very moment we crossed the German border. There were a lot of grim-looking sheds that may have held the 25 million pigs the Danes kill each year. Cosy in those sheds, no doubt, but maybe not much hygge for the piggies.

Next in “The Lost Continent” series, Matthew Engel visits Romania. Read the rest of the series here

This article appears in the 28 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexit fantasy died