Articles - September October 2019

Denmark: "Easiest Place to Do Business" - World Bank

A Conversation with Denmark's Ambassador Lone Dencker Wisborg
Roland Flamini

Denmark, home of the Little Mermaid statue, Hans Christian Andersen, Legoland, and a glamorous future queen born in Australia - of all places - gets consistently top marks from international institutions for high living standards with few left behind, as well as high levels of trust and safety. A recent report on Denmark (population 5.8 million) by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said "high and equally-distributed incomes translate into strong feelings of wellbeing, according to a range of measures." As Lone Dencker Wisborg, Denmark's ambassador to Washington, pointed out during an interview with Diplomatic Connections, her country is even number one in Europe on the World Bank's "Ease of Doing Business Index."

A major element in this positive picture is Denmark's cradle-to-grave social welfare system, which has its origins in the 1870s, and which determines that all citizens have a right to free medical help, free hospitals, free education, and a pension independent of savings and employment (similar welfare systems are in place in the other Nordic states). Few things annoy Danes more than hearing American politicians labeling their country as socialist because of its welfare program, and it seems to be one of Ambassador Wisborg's tasks during her time in the United States - to disabuse them of that notion.

No silver lining is without its cloud, of course, and in Denmark that cloud is the now-familiar one of how to handle the influx of refugees. Europe proved unprepared for the frantic surge of asylum seekers that swamped the continent in 2015. As the crisis mounted, each country cobbled together its own emergency measures. Unlike the Hungarians, the Danish center-right government didn't close the borders altogether, but the center-right government enacted the toughest immigration legislation in Denmark's history.
Legislation to allow for confiscation of refugees' jewelry was introduced, (although the ambassador says no pieces of jewelry are known to have been confiscated since the law was passed). A ban on burqa wearing went into effect, and there was a push to shift the emphasis from integration to repatriation. In July, the Social Democratic Party led by Mette Frederiksen and its center-left allies ousted the center-right government, but there was some doubt whether the tougher immigration policies would be relaxed. Frederiksen had supported them when she was in opposition.

Denmark became a member of the European Union (then the European Economic Community) following a referendum in 1972, but the two other constituent components of the Danish kingdom – the Faroe Islands and Greenland – are not members. Greenland voted itself out of the EU in 1985, and the Faroe Islands were never members in the first place. Denmark is the only member of the EU besides the United Kingdom to have opted out of the euro and gotten away with it: its currency is still the kroner. To a large extent, Denmark joined the EU following the example of Britain's entry (the two countries have close relations). But the Danes have no intention of following the UK out of the European Union, and Ambassador Wisborg says the polls suggest that the political chaos Brexit has caused in the UK has strengthened support for the EU.

Diplomatic Connections: Ambassador, from your official bio I gather two interesting things: one is that you have not served in Washington before, and that makes you a bit of a rarity because most ambassadors have at least on previous posting here; and the other is that you have spent several years inside the ministry dealing with policy at a senior level.

Ambassador Wisborg: I have not served in Washington before, and this is my second ambassadorial post. I was ambassador in Spain. The number of positions I've held in the ministry are very much policy focused: I was state secretary for foreign policy, and for the last two years, I have occupied the position of chief operational officer, in charge of running the ministry as an organization.

Diplomatic Connections: Now that you're here as ambassador, what advice would you give about functioning in Washington to an incoming colleague who was about to take up an ambassadorship.

Ambassador Wisborg: I would advise him or her to do what I've done. I did a plan for the first 100 days to meet as many people as possible. Diplomacy is partly networking, so you need to build up that network as fast as possible. So my advise would be to get the network up and running, you never know when you would need it.

Diplomatic Connections: What are your impressions of the Washington post?

Ambassador Wisborg: First of all, for me Washington is the jewel in the crown (of diplomatic assignments). When you work in security policy as I have, there's no more interesting posting than Washington. So I'm super excited to be here. What strikes me is, because the U.S. is a world leader, everything that goes on here is of interest to Copenhagen. As an ambassador everything we do, and every report we send back is just being swallowed at home, and that's very motivating. Also, you can meet and talk to so many interesting people to form your own idea of what this country is, and what the policies are - really highly qualified, knowledgeable people, and they're accessible.

Diplomatic Connections: You're saying there's good access?

Ambassador Wisborg: Access and size: when you come to the U.S. you're struck by size. In Washington, the number of think tanks, the number of people in the administration, in Congress, that you have the possibility to meet is impressive.

Diplomatic Connections: You're probably – inevitably – still asked what it's like being a woman ambassador in Washington?

Ambassador Wisborg: To be honest, I don't really consider it an issue. If I think about it I would only say that it's an advantage because diplomacy is about building networks, and getting to know people, so if there are fewer female ambassadors people tend to remember you.

Diplomatic Connections: There are twenty-nine female ambassadors, and as I understand it, you have had good lines of communication.

Ambassador Wisborg: We have. We do things together: we have an informal female club where we invite American stakeholders for working lunches. I don't feel any disadvantages to being a woman, and I try to make it an advantage.

Diplomatic Connections: But you come from a country where gender is not such a big issue.

Ambassador Wisborg: We've come a long way in Denmark on women issues, and particularly in the Foreign Ministry, a lot of progress has been made. But we're not there yet: we still need to work on it. Specifically, in the area of women leaders, in the private sector as well, CEOs and on boards, etc.

Diplomatic Connections: What does being Danish mean today?
Ambassador Wisborg: I would hesitate to answer for all Danes, but I can tell you what it is to me. Being a Dane means coming from a small, open, innovative country, where we have a highly developed welfare system. We've been trading with the rest of the world since the Viking Age, and I think that's somehow in our genes – that we're open towards the world, we're curious about the world, we trade, we travel, and we also feel a global responsibility so we keep 0.7 percent (of GDP) in development assistance. We participate in international peace operations. There's kind of a sense of responsibility; we want to defend our interests, but we also want to make the world a better place to live in.

Diplomatic Connections: Denmark has been, and still is, a participant in several UN peace-keeping forces, for example in Cyprus.

Ambassador Wisborg: Yes, in various places. In Africa as well.

Diplomatic Connections: Denmark's bi-lateral relations with the United States: What don't the Americans do that you would like them to do?

Ambassador Wisborg: First of all, there's so much that unites us, and we happily cooperate on these issues. What is most important to us right now, the overriding foreign policy priority would be to preserve and develop the international rules-based order that we've built up together since the Second World War. That's a story that I keep telling here, in Copenhagen, and wherever I go, because sometimes I think that trans-Atlantic relations are taken for granted. We need to stick together because we share values and ideals, and if we don't protect and preserve this world order we might end up with another world order that we don't like, or even disorder.

Diplomatic Connections: Regarding security cooperation, the Danes are in Afghanistan…

Ambassador Wisborg: We have 155 soldiers there now.

Diplomatic Connections: The Danes were in Iraq…

Ambassador Wisborg: We're still there with 214 soldiers.

Diplomatic Connections: The U.S. runs military operations in Greenland on Thule Air Base?

Ambassador Wisborg: Yes, that is correct. The Americans have an air base there, where they do missile warning and space control. They have also indicated an interest in strategic investments in airport infrastructure in Greenland, including in projects that may have dual civil and military benefits, which we very much welcome.

Diplomatic Connections: To what extent is Greenland under Danish control?

Ambassador Wisborg: Greenland is one of the three parts of the Danish Kingdom along with Denmark and the Faroe Islands. We are one country, one kingdom, but both the Faroe Islands and Greenland have extended self-government, and they decide on a number of issues – education, environment, and so on. But the Danish government and parliament decide foreign policy in consultation with Greenland and the Faroe Islands on matters of special concern to them.

Diplomatic Connections: So Greenland is a member of the European Union?

Ambassador Wisborg: No it's not. It was originally, but then decided to leave (following a referendum), and the Faroe Islands were never EU members, but Denmark is.

Diplomatic Connections: If Denmark had a referendum today about staying in the European Union, what do you think would be the result?

Ambassador Wisborg: The opinion polls tell us that 77 percent of Danes would vote in favor of staying in, and that's the highest number we have had, ever. We've always been very positive, but to be absolutely honest what is happening in the UK has had a lot of effect. That's the most common analysis.

Diplomatic Connections: What is the extent of opposition to the EU from the populist right?

Ambassador Wisborg: For some time we've had groups skeptical of the European Union on both the right and the left side of the political spectrum, but both lost in the recent election. One of them has had a seat in the European Parliament for a number of years, and now no longer does.

Diplomatic Connections: How would you assess Copenhagen's relationship with Brussels?

Ambassador Wisborg: If by Copenhagen you mean the government, or political thought, I think the feeling is that the benefits of EU membership are much bigger than the disadvantages for a small country like ours. Sometimes we think it's not efficient enough, or that everything takes a long time. But when we speak within the European Union we are so much stronger, we can deal with issues that cross borders, like climate, and there are huge advantages for our economy – the single market, etc. A lot of jobs have been gained as a result of the (EU) single market.

Diplomatic Connections: Are the Danes comfortable with the EU objectives of further integration – the unified budget, more centralization, and, as the Treaty of Rome states "an ever closer union?"

Ambassador Wisborg: My sense is that most Danes are happy with the way it is now. Denmark still has our opt-outs (in its agreement with the European Union). When we had a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty we initially got a "No," and so we negotiated some opt-outs, that have remained in place. One is on the euro, another is on defense, and then there is one on justice and home affairs. According to polls, the one that people favor getting rid of is on defense. On defense, we've seen a development not only in the European Union but also in the receptiveness of the Danes. Originally, when France and Germany were pushing for common European defense, Danes were skeptical and preferred NATO to take care of security matters. But now we understand that the intent is to develop European ability to shoulder joint security challenges, and opinion polls show a majority of Danes in favor of getting rid of that opt-out. But on the rest of them, I think most people are basically happy with where we are. In our view, it is not either or. Both become stronger. Because of the opt-out we are not part of the discussion on defense. We support the development of capabilities in the European Union, but we emphasize that it has to be complementary to what we're doing in NATO.

Diplomatic Connections: Denmark's defense expenditure is currently 1.3 percent of GDP, which is short of the two percent commitment the Trump administration expects of alliance members. Is this something that causes problems for your bi-lateral relationship?

Ambassador Wisborg: We're fully aware of the defense commitment, and the importance that the administration attaches to it. We recognize that more needs to be done and the parliament has recently decided to increase defense spending, which has been appreciated by the U.S. government. At the same time, we continue to contribute significantly to NATO operations - be they in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Eastern Europe or elsewhere.

Diplomatic Connections: How much uncertainty is there in Denmark, as there is in other NATO countries, that the present administration is not as committed to Art. 5 of the NATO Treaty (an attack on one member is an attack on the whole Atlantic Alliance) as other administrations have been in the past?

Ambassador Wisborg: We saw the celebration of the 70th anniversary of NATO's foundation as a strong signal of the commitment on the part of the U.S. Sometimes we forget that we've seen an increased U.S. military presence in Europe. There were initial worries about the U.S. commitment to Art. 5, but I think they have calmed down.

Diplomatic Connections: The current administration has made Iran its number one enemy. How much concern is there in Denmark that things could get out of hand in the Gulf, and what do you think is the road back from this crisis?

Ambassador Wisborg: Iran is one of the issues on which we, to a large extent, share the (U.S.) objective, but disagree on the methods. We are part of the European Union, and still support the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), because we see it as important for our security. We continue to claim that it is the best way forward, and we do what we can to save the agreement. I think developments in and around Iran are very worrying, and steps should be made to de-escalate tension.

Diplomatic Connections: The influx of refugees is a challenge in Denmark, as it is elsewhere in Europe. The previous government in Copenhagen had tightened up on the admission, processing, and treatment of refugees, limiting numbers, and other measures. To some extent traditional public tolerance of the influx is eroding. At the time, the center-left opposition, which is now the new government, did not oppose the new measures. So what prospects are there that the new government will reverse some of those earlier decisions?

Ambassador Wisborg: The migration crisis in 2015 was really a shock to everybody – to the politicians, and to the Danish population. We had refugees literally wandering on our highways, which in a very regulated country like ours, was almost inconceivable. The crisis led the government to tighten measures, with the support of the Social Democratic Party that is now in government, and a lot was done through the EU to strengthen external borders. The new government has issued a kind of political understanding with the three center-left parties supporting them. On immigration, they suggest that a new EU asylum system should be negotiated because the current one has failed; they put emphasis on addressing root causes of migration – partnering with Africa is a big priority – they also emphasize further integration of the immigrants that are already in Denmark, and they say they are open to accepting some of the most
vulnerable refugees as specified by the United Nations.

Diplomatic Connections: The European Union issued quotas of refugees for each member state. Did Denmark comply with this arrangement?

Ambassador Wisborg: There's been a debate on the re-distribution of refugees, without any conclusion so far, but since we're not engaged in this part of the EU co-operation it doesn't apply to us. If the EU were to legislate a re-distribution of refugees, that would not apply directly to Denmark.

Diplomatic Connections: When American politicians talk about the Scandinavian welfare state, as some presidential candidates are now doing, do they know what they are talking about?

Ambassador Wisborg: Some Americans think we're Socialists. I've met numerous Americans who think that. I explain that we're not Socialists; we have a liberal market economy and a private sector with a light touch on regulation, and that is combined with a welfare system, free education, free health care, and an allocation of wealth, basically, through our tax system. That is a concept that is maybe strange to many Americans. We try to explain our model, and we often refer to The World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Index. Denmark is number one in Europe and number three in the world. It's a well-functioning market economy with a soft edge, you could say.

Diplomatic Connections: Is there a Danish diaspora?

Ambassador Wisborg: There is. We have 1.2 or 1.3 million Americans of Danish descent. Most of them live in California, and in Utah.

Diplomatic Connections: Does that mean they're Mormons?

Ambassador Wisborg: Well, the story is actually quite interesting. When Denmark adopted its constitution in 1849, we were one of the first countries to have freedom of religion. And so Mormons came to Denmark to practice their religion, and met Danes, and Danes traveled to Utah, so there's a link there. I'm told that the first foreign language translation of the Book of Mormons is Danish.

Diplomatic Connections: In terms of the region, how close are the countries of the Scandinavian region? For example, is Denmark a member of NORDEFCO (Nordic Defense Cooperation), and what is it exactly?

Ambassador Wisborg: NORDEFCO is a formalized defense cooperation, but it's not an alliance, like NATO. We discuss policy initiatives. And talking about alliances, we have different positions: Norway, Denmark and Iceland are members of NATO and the others are not. Even though Sweden and Finland are cooperating very closely with NATO. (As Scandinavians) we feel a closeness in terms of mentality and history, and there's cooperation in every area. At government level, there's a Nordic Council of Ministers, which meets regularly.

Diplomatic Connections: How much of a problem for Denmark is Russia's current aggressiveness? For example, are there incidents of combat planes trespassing in Danish airspace?

Ambassador Wisborg: There are some issues and incidents from time to time: we've experienced that.

Diplomatic Connections: How concerned are the Danes about Russia?

Ambassador Wisborg: We are worried about it, particularly what we've been seeing in Ukraine. Ukraine is a very high priority in our foreign policy, and we consider the Russian annexation of Crimea unacceptable. There's also a Russian military build-up in the Arctic that we keep an eye on, as well as the violation of the INF Treaty. We support that NATO has taken action to reinforce its posture in Europe, so that's one side of it. But we also claim that our Russia policy has to have two dimensions: so, firmness on one hand, but also the chance to meet and to talk. And the Arctic so far has been an area of low tension, and the Arctic Council has worked very well and has produced results, such as search and rescue, and protection of the environment: there are agreements being made in the Arctic Council.

Diplomatic Connections: How has the practice of diplomacy changed in the current era of social media and instant news? Firstly, do you tweet?

Ambassador Wisborg: I do.

Diplomatic Connections: Does the embassy?

Ambassador Wisborg: It does. To get back to your question, in modern times when everybody has access to information, why do we need diplomats, and I think that's based on a misunderstanding of what diplomacy is. It's not a news agency. My primary function is to fight for Danish interests abroad and explain Danish values and positions, and that requires a presence abroad. You can't take human contact out of the equation; I need to meet with people and to try to convince people of the Danish position. I need to try to sense where the red lines are on the other side, or to identify issues where we could work together, and that you can't get out of a newspaper.

Diplomatic Connections: So you don't think that you're likely to be replaced in the near future by a hologram?

Ambassador Wisborg: No, I'm not particularly afraid of that.

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