Aalborg hosts first ever political panel debate in English

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Photo courtesy of TheLocal.dk, article published online on 23 March 2015 (see http://www.thelocal.dk/20150323/english-language-debate-tackles-myths-in-aalborg).

Last Thursday night a historic event took place in Aalborg: the first political panel debate carried out in English. Five politicians, representing two conservative parties and three liberal, stated and debated their positions on two topics related to Denmark’s membership in the EU: loss of cultural identity and ‘welfare tourism’ (a third, ‘social dumping,’ which was scheduled to be discussed last, was dropped due to time constraints). Approximately 100 people attended the debate, which was held in the Aalborg Kommune Byrådssal (City Council Room – pretty impressive place, I have to say). Sponsors of the event included Frit Forum AalborgDSU Aalborg, and Iuvenis International, while event partners were Radikal Ungdom Aalborg, Socialist Youth (SFU), and the International Committee of DSU Aalborg.

Panelists included:

  • Ole Christensen – Social Democrat, Danish Member of European Parliament
  • Jacob Klivager Vestergaard – Socialistik Folkeparti Candidate for Danish Parliament
  • Giajenthiran Velmurugan – Radikale Venstre Candidate for Danish Parliament
  • Cæcilie Andersen – Enhedslisten Candidate for Danish Parliament
  • Morten Thiessen – Konservative Candidate for Danish Parliament

The debate was opened and moderated by Aalborg city council member Lasse Frimand Jensen of the Social Democratic party. After welcoming and introducing the five panellists, Lasse outlined the agenda and then handed the floor to Tom Weireich, vice president of European Youth Denmark, who briefly set the stage for the debate of the first ‘myth.’

Myth number 1: Danes face a loss of cultural identity due to EU ‘common identity’

After Tom posed the questions – Is multiculturalism going to destroy our national cultural? If so, is that a bad thing? What will we do about it? – the politicians were given two minutes each to state their stance on the topic. Their statements ranged from ‘cultural diversity is good and a powerful thing, so if the EU brings this to Denmark, this is perhaps the only good thing the EU brings to the country’ (Cæcilie) to ‘we can be both Danes and Europeans’ (Giajenthiran) and ‘EU membership cannot take over Danish identity’ (Jakob).

The debate that followed (roughly 30 minutes of open discussion among the panellists) was lively, interesting, and sometimes even funny. Most of the comments and opinions flying back and forth were made by Morten, Ole, and Giajenthiran. Morten argued that the role of the EU is as a political and economic power and and its governing body should have nothing to do with setting cultural norms. Giajenthiran countered this by saying that today’s challenges, like climate change, require cooperation through the EU and that identity as both citizens of Country X and the EU is both possible and necessary. Ole’s stance – that while we shouldn’t look at the EU as ‘one nation,’ we don’t have to worry about an EU identity taking over our Danish one; after all, the 750 Members of European Parliament are clearly a mix of individuals with firm national identities – lay somewhere in between the two.

As the debate developed, the core issue that seemed to emerge was whether or not cooperation among EU member states on issues such as climate change or countering the power of emerging superpowers necessitates a common cultural identity. Giajenthiran continued to insist that Danes could be both Danes and EU citizens, Germans both Germans and EU citizens, etc. In other words, one doesn’t take away from the other, and a common cultural identity is necessary to making the cooperative relationship strong in the EU. Morten, on the other hand, kept arguing that this has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with politics; that while yes, we should cooperate in the EU in order to ‘impact the world in positive way,’ the EU should not have the power to decide whether, for example, the bullfights in Spain are barbaric and should be banned, or whether same sex marriages are acceptable.

Ole’s statement, however, is indicative of how the current Danish government sees things: ‘We don’t need an EU identity, we need a common understanding of EU cooperation and what it’s about. We need to talk much more about it. People don’t know what the EU is all about and we don’t seem to care. [Such discussions] would be a good way for citizens to interact because they could understand the issues we’re dealing with. 75% of Danes think it’s good to have the right to move freely across borders – but it’s not just good for Danes to move around, it’s also good for young people to come and study and work in DK. We have to talk about this – in 50-100 years we can talk about EU identity but we’re not there yet.’

As Giajenthiran was expounding on his argument – ‘Why is an EU common identity so provocative? Because you seem to think that it requires that we give up a national identity. I’m saying we just need to add the EU identity as a supplement so [we would consider ourselves] Danes AND Europeans…’ – he let slip that he thinks ‘that needs to be enforced,’ which provoked a lot of murmurs from the audience and comments from his fellow debaters. He immediately corrected himself, saying he meant ‘empowered.’ However, a few laughs over his slip of the tongue were had at his expense…

Following a Q&A session, during which most of the questions were directed at Morten (Is loss of cultural identity even a problem in our current state? So you think EU should not take a stand on issues like gay marriage? etc.), the audience was asked to vote (thumbs up or thumbs down) whether the myth that the loss of cultural identity is a problem had been debunked – the majority raised their thumbs.

Myth number 2: “Welfare tourism” exists in Denmark

Tom started off this round by explaining that the term ‘welfare tourism’ was invented by right wing politicians to describe the movement of people – mostly from the East – to the West to benefit from wealthier countries’ welfare systems. The term plays on fears that the welfare system can’t sustain everyone; that citizens will lose their own pensions, among other benefits because the system will be overloaded. Tom ended his description of the term by asking panelists to discuss the following: Is welfare tourism a real thing? Is it a problem? What should be done about it?

The politicians uniformly agreed that welfare tourism, as such, does not exist in Denmark. Jakob, the first to speak, pointed out that people only qualify for benefits if they live in Denmark and contribute in some way to the economy, either as students or workers. Giajenthiran echoed this, emphasizing that the concept of welfare tourism was a right wing invention designed to scare Danes off of the EU. Ole argued that international residents in Denmark are actually contributing more than they are receiving. Cæcilia stated that welfare tourism is not a big problem and that all people who come to Denmark should have the same rights. Morten, while he believes that welfare tourism does exist, does not believe it exists in the EU. In fact, he argued, Denmark cannot operate without the 130,000 EU laborers that reside in Denmark.

What emerged during the debate period were several important points about ‘welfare tourism’: 1) the idea that the reason many Danes believe ‘welfare tourism’ is a real phenomenon is that they don’t actually understand the rules; 2) Denmark actually needs foreign labor; and 3) informing people and being transparent about Denmark’s social benefits system is crucial.

‘If you are here on a temporary basis, you don’t have the right to social security benefits because you don’t pay taxes in Denmark,’ pointed out Ole. ‘However, if you come to the country and contribute by working or studying then you do have a right to benefits. But we have to tell Danes this – they don’t all believe this. It is important to discuss this.’ Morten agreed, stating that ‘most people don’t understand how this [system] works. The system is being challenged. [The government] needs to be more transparent, have open discussions and make fair adjustments.’

Ole then went on to say that Nordjylland alone will need 1,200 additional skilled workers in the next two years, an influx that many Danes fear. However, Morten pointed out that Denmark has 200,000 unemployed unskilled workers, a number that is problematic. ‘Salaries are too high, and ambitions are too low,’ he argued. This sparked a response by Ole, who said ‘Denmark’s labor force is one of the most productive in Europe, which is why they’re earning a lot of money…When things are good, people should get good salaries. There is an advantage in competition – we pay a lot of money for companies, which don’t pay social contributions thy way they do in other countries. In Denmark you can live on your salary, even if you work in a restaurant or grocery store. This is different in countries in the south – and that’s not decent.’ His statement provoked applause.

So from about that point in the debate, the topic shifted – unprompted – to social dumping, or the practice of employers using cheaper labor than what is generally available. The liberal side broadly argued that workers’ salaries need to remain at a ‘living wage’ level and criticized conservatives for their push to cut taxes of the wealthiest citizens and lower lower-tier wages. Morten pushed back, saying ‘we hate the top tax because it’s unfair and unjust and destroys people’s willingness to work harder and strive. The government should not create jobs – businesses create jobs. The government should give a good environment for businesses so they can create jobs…We need the lowest wage earners to be flexible.’

Questions fired at panelists at the end of this round included why, if Denmark needs highly qualified workers, it is so difficult for non-Danes who graduate from an institution of higher education here to find work (‘If you are an engineer, send me your resume,’ was Morten’s reply) and whether politicians were aware that many non-Danish students are working for 30-40 kr./hour, to which Morten responded that they should get their union involved.

The event lasted a little over three hours, at the end of which this blogger’s energy level (and that of many others, presumably) was flagging. I’m glad I went, though, if only to hear about what Danish politicians think, straight from the horse’s mouth.

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