Today in the West, no issue matters more than immigration policy, especially at a time when much of the world, from Mexicans to Nigerians to Pakistanis, wants to move to North America and Western Europe.
Controlling immigration has proven difficult because the Establishment in destination countries tends to view mass, unfettered, and unvetted immigration as a benign phenomenon. Two examples capture this outlook. In 2014, Sweden's establishment parties, making up 86 percent of the parliament, joined forces to marginalize the civilizationist party (that is, the party focused on controlling immigration and demanding the integration of immigrants) with 14 percent. Angela Merkel, the establishment German chancellor waved in a million-plus unvetted migrants, leading to a pan-European crisis in 2015-16.
Few parties are so arch-establishment as Denmark's Social Democrats (SD). Founded in 1871, it had the largest representation in parliament for seventy-seven straight years. Its accomplishments include creating the welfare state, building modern Denmark, and shaping the Danish character. "Deep down, we're all Social Democrats" a person who dislikes the party acknowledged to me.
Despite this pedigree, plus its own history of advocating open borders, the SD has since 2019 imposed a remarkably restrictive immigration policy. In so doing, it has made Denmark the West's undisputed leader in the race to save traditional culture. As few outside Denmark have noticed this remarkable shift, I went to Copenhagen in advance of the national elections on November 1 to understand what caused this shift, how much of a difference it makes, and if Denmark can offer lessons to other countries.
Building to Crisis
Denmark's unusual path started in 2001, when SD's seventy-seven-year streak came to an end and it lost power due to widespread stress over uncontrolled immigration, especially coming from the Middle East. Then, in 2006, a depiction of Islam's Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper cartoon spurred international protests in the Muslim world. The controversy was Denmark's largest foreign relations controversy in decades. In 2015, the SD fared badly again, also due largely to the many Middle Eastern immigrants.
In response, the party chose a thirty-seven-year-old woman, Mette Frederiksen, as its leader. She quickly overhauled SD's lax immigration policy, calling for a cap on "non-Western immigrants," for illegal migrants to be expelled to North Africa, and for immigrants to have to be employed for a full work-week of thirty-seven hours. Her party supported a law allowing jewelry to be stripped from migrants as well as a ban on burqas and niqabs, the all-encompassing Islamic outfits.
This jaw-droppingly tough approach by a social democratic party paid off handsomely. SD and its allies prevailed in the 2019 elections and Frederiksen went on to become prime minister. In contrast, the anti-immigration Danish People's Party (DPP) did terribly, collapsing from 37 seats in 2015 to 16 seats in 2019.
Frederiksen spoke of "sticking to our Danish values" and took steps to control immigration. Denmark accepted 21,316 asylum seekers in 2015; that number dropped to 1,515 in 2020. She announced the goal of zero asylum seekers in 2021, though the actual number increased to 2,099, presumably due to the decrease of pandemic restrictions. Likewise, the number of asylums granted went from 19,849 in 2015 to 601 in 2020, to 1,362 in 2021. In comparative terms, these numbers are trivial compared to many other Western European countries; neighboring Sweden granted 17,215 asylums in 2020, or roughly 15 times more than Denmark on a per-capita basis.
Even before Frederiksen took office, the Danish authorities had sent out a flamboyantly unfriendly message to would-be immigration. In 2015, to surprised international headlines, the government placed advertisements in four Lebanese newspapers announcing that regulations concerning refugees had been tightened; in other words, go somewhere else. SD then engaged in a number of high-profile steps to encourage repatriation and even engage in forced deportations. For example, those the government delicately calls "spontaneous asylum-seekers" (i.e., illegal migrants) who refuse repatriation may find themselves in one of the country's three "return centers." Inger Støjberg, integration minister in 2018, growled that conditions at those centers must be "as intolerable as possible."
The numbers involved were small and hardly dented the problem, the legal wrangling long and expensive, but these deportations – plus the ads, the jewelry law, and other steps – reinforced the Danish snarl to illegal migrants: "Don't come to Denmark. We're nasty. Go to Germany or Sweden instead." As a result, more refugees left Denmark in 2020 than arrived.
At the same time, SD barely broached the far more challenging problem of dealing with the profound issues related to Muslim and other immigrants who come from alien cultures, far less modern circumstances, and bear an Islamist outlook. Social pathologies, unemployment, cultural clashes, and "parallel societies" remain for future governments to contend with.
A Serious Effort?
Did Denmark's Social Democratic party merely pander or is it sincere? To assess, it helps to take a step back and consider how divergently establishment and civilizationist parties view immigration.
Establishment parties welcome large-scale immigration because they tend to care little for their own culture, which they often associate with fascism, imperialism, and racism. They feel a sense of guilt toward non-Western peoples, whom they see as exploited by the West and made poorer and more repressed due to Western greed. A visitor to Denmark's National Museum will learn that Danish ships transported about 110,000 slaves from Africa to the Western Hemisphere. The Establishment welcomes diversity and cultural transformation. It points to immigrants as sympathetic refugees and as aspiring young scholars, successful entrepreneurs, and proud members of the armed forces.
By contrast, attached to their own language, customs, religion, and to the cultural familiarity of those around them, civilizationists wish to preserve their traditional way of life. Symbolic of this, they cherish how pedestrians in Denmark wait dutifully for the light to turn green, even when no car is remotely in sight. Or how the public transportation works on the honor system. When large numbers of people speak other languages, pursue other customs, follow other religions, and act differently from themselves (I compulsively jay-walk), civilizationists become offended, even scared. They point to the myriad problems with Middle Eastern immigration, such as polygyny, female genital mutilation, honor killings, criminality, rape gangs, jihadi violence, new diseases, resisting assimilation, unemployment.
Two forces, however, disrupt establishment cohesion on immigration. One concerns indigenous workers who lose out when waves of low-cost immigrant rivals compete with them, harming their welfare; this makes far-left figures like U.S. senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), British MP Jeremy Corbyn, and French presidential contender Jean-Luc Mélenchon cautious about waves of migrants. Interestingly, Frederiksen also articulated this position: "The price of unregulated globalization, mass immigration and the free movement of labor is paid for by the lower classes."
The other disruptive force concerns the voters; if open borders lose votes, then the establishment must rethink its approach – what happened in Denmark between 2001 and 2015. Together, these two forces suggest to me that the SD is sincere, though that will be tested should it lose the forthcoming elections.
The Current Debate
A sterile good-bad dispute over uncontrolled immigration wracks every other Western country. Denmark alone hosts a constructive debate over tactics: how far to clamp down? Being a member of the European Union (EU) and signatory to many United Nations (UN) conventions regarding asylum, family reunification, human rights, refugees, statelessness, about 80 percent of relevant Danish laws derive from those two sources. The issue, therefore, has less to do with abstract preferences and more with a willingness to defy those higher authorities.
The SD maintains that Denmark, a law-abiding global citizen with a population of just 5.8 million, must work strictly within existing confines. "We're a small country, we can't do whatever we want," Kaare Dybvad, SD's impressive minister of immigration and integration, told me.
In response, Morten Messerschmidt, the equally impressive DPP leader, retorted that SD's foundational principles require it meekly to follow EU and UN diktats. Instead, he wants to push the envelope, ignoring select EU laws and leaving UN conventions. Not to do so, Messerschmidt believes, means electorally-appealing tough rhetoric without real effect.
That's the essence of the argument in Denmark, a sensible one, with a plausible case for each side. The voters will decide how aggressive they wish to be.
Why, I asked my Danish interlocutors, did Denmark break the mold on immigration policy, ahead of every other Western country in developing a sensible consensus between establishment and civilizationists? I received an interesting array of answers. A sampling:
- Kaare Dybvad: the country's too-open immigration policy in the past requires a retreat and balance.
- Morten Messerschmidt: the country's economic equality points to popular enfranchisement.
- Naser Khader, the courageous Syrian-born independent member of parliament: the cartoon crisis.
- Mikkel Andersson, author of a book on immigration to Denmark: the Danes' fractious nature.
- Michael Pihl of the Danish Free Press Society: the country's non-hierarchical nature.
The most persuasive explanation came from both Peder Jensen, a Norwegian writer, and Bent Blüdnikow, a journalist and historian. With Pia Kjærsgaard (b. 1947), Denmark had the right charismatic politician at the right time with the right message. She built the DPP into a non-scary, non-extremist force that, starting in 2001, won substantial backing and forced the SD seriously to respond to her critique.
In other words, Denmark's happy evolution resulted not from national character nor from profound historical developments but from the randomness of personality and moment. That in turn implies the near-impossibility of predicting which Western country might follow Denmark toward immigration sanity.
Observers widely recognize that Danes broke new ground. Political analyst Kristian Madsen saw the 2019 elections as "a laboratory for what the center-left [in Europe] can be." Analyst Jamie Dettmer noted that Frederiksen's victory "prompted a debate among fellow European left-wing parties: Should they, too, adopt anti-migrant rhetoric, imitate their Danish counterparts and campaign for stricter immigration rules?" Frederiksen herself offered Denmark's tough-on-immigration approach to other Social Democratic parties. "For years," she admonished them, Social Democrats "have underestimated the challenges of mass immigration. ... We have failed when it comes to maintaining the social contract, which is the very foundation of the Social-Democratic social model."
But there has not been much response. On their own, Austria's leftists made small moves in this direction when Christian Kern, its Social Democratic chancellor in 2016-17, tightened immigration rules. Sweden's Social Democrats talked vaguely of pushing harder for immigrants to integrate, with Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson arguing "We don't want a Somalitown ... we want Swedish to be the natural language throughout Sweden").
In the end, then, it will not so much be the Danish model that brings sense to Europe but autonomous developments in each country. Denmark's example can inspire but it does not smooth the path forward.
Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum.
 Curiously, the Danish government defines non-Western as any country outside the European Union, with the exception of several west Europe countries (Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, United Kingdom), several west European mini-states (Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, Vatican), and the Anglosphere (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United States). This measure renders Ukraine, Israel, Japan, and Chile non-Western but Cypriot Turks and French Algerians rate as Westerners.