The Bear's Lair

The following post was contributed by Malthe Mikkel Munkøe.

The current debacle over Danish plans to step up customs checks on its borders to Sweden and Germany highlights the fact that European integration has blurred the traditional divide between domestic politics and international politics. Gone is the time when affairs between states was “high politics”, a domain that was played out in insulated secrecy and in accordance with the interest of the state rather than popular sentiments and desires. What originated as a purely domestic political issue, building support for a pension reform, soon arose massive international attention as well as the ire of the Commission and the other EU countries with Germany being particularly vocal.

Domestic politics turning international
Some background is necessary to understand the predicament of the Danish government. In the late spring of 2011 the Danish government brokered an ambitious deal on pension reforms with its coalition partner, the Danish Peoples Party (DPP) and the social-liberal centrist party, Radikale Venstre. Danish politics had been dominated by economic issues for some time, and the government was eager to prove its ability to carry out reforms to consolidate the national budget. Also, the government was trailing the Social-Democratic led opposition in the polls, and the general election, due in November at the latest (snap elections are allowed and common in Danish politics), was drawing close. An ambitious pension reform was seen as possible opportunity to turn the tide. The move was particularly appealing for the government since it would divide the opposition and thus cast doubt on its credibility in relation to economic policy-making. This was the case because the Radikale Venstre, long a proponent of pension reforms, decided to back the government’s policy despite its support for a Social Democrat-led government.

As attractive as the reform was for the government equally unattractive it looked for the DPP, since its voter base consists in large part of blue-collar workers and other segments of society that would stand to lose most from the reforms. The support of the Eurosceptic and right-of-centre party was necessary for the reform to be passed, and furthermore the government had long maintained an informal alliance with the DPP in order to maintain a majority in parliament. A concession of great symbolic value was therefore needed in order to compensate the DPP. It would have to be something that could get the party leaders much good publicity in Danish media and appeal to the voters to make up for the unpopular reform package.

A perilous balancing act
Reinstating border controls had long been an important policy objective for the DPP. This would be a very visible political concession, and could also help address rising concerns over an increased influx of illicit goods, drugs, weapons as well as criminal gangs from Eastern Europe operating in Denmark. However, the Danish government did not intend to renege on its obligations under the Schengen Agreement. The Danish government therefore found itself in a dangerous balancing act. On the one hand it needed to honour its international commitments. On the other hand it also had to get a deal that would allow the DPP to recuperate from supporting the pension reform. Domestic policy, in other words, had to be conducted with proper consideration of potential international reactions.

The Danish government tried its best, of course, to give its international partners the impression that the steps to be taken were light and in full compliance with the Schengen Agreement. But at the same time, the DPP was busy rejoicing that they had ensured the reinstatement of border controls. This, DPP leader Pia Kjærsgaard stressed, would help shield Denmark from crime and protect Danish national identity.

Danish EU expert, Professor Marlene Wind, has argued that the government had thought it could let DPP to take the scene and explain the deal to the Danes without it being noticed abroad. However, the Danish government learned the hard way that it is not possible to say one thing to a domestic audience to appease them whilst professing another course of action at the international level. “In a global world one can no longer control what is a national agenda, and what is the message to Brussels”, professor Wind has observed.

An ill-fated attempt to do just that was ostensibly a press briefing written in English that summed up the agreement on border controls. However, Danish media later revealed that the original Danish agreement was written in a tone and with certain phrases not reported in the international press brief that suggested a much more wide-ranging approach. For example, the original title of the agreement reads “solid upgrade and permanent and visible border control at Danish border crossings”, while the English press briefing is simply titled “the Danish agreement on customs control”. The first line of the Danish policy text reads “In recent years there has been a substantial increase in cross-border crime”, while the English briefing begins by noting that “the agreement aims first and foremost at enhancing customs control and implies increased controls in relation to the smuggling into Denmark of mainly goods and items”, and does not mention cross-border crime. Whether or not the government deliberately chose to portray the matter differently to international audiences and the Danish population, as professor Wind and opposition spokespersons have suggested, or simply abstained from correcting how the DPP depicted the agreement in national media, the result has been predictable international criticism from the Commission and other EU countries.

It is highly impractical to present one message to a domestic audience and another on the international scene. Despite the Danish government’s guarantee that it would fulfill its international obligations, the rhetoric used when the agreement was presented to the Danish electorate has cast these assurances in a dubious light. European-level and domestic-level politics are no longer easily separable because national issues increasingly pertain to matters regulated at the EU level or otherwise of interest to European counterparts. This illustrates how European integration gradually leads to the contravention of the traditionally sharp divide between domestic and European-level foreign policy.

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