When Søren Pind was named the new immigration minister in March, he made instant headlines – and ruffled feathers – by stating that he preferred ‘assimilation’ to ‘immigration’ and that people who move to Denmark do so because they want to “become Danish”. I sat down with Pind, who also serves as the development minister, for an exclusive interview in which he attempted to clarify his statement, discussed what it means to be Danish, and laid out his vision for immigration policy.
Justin Cremer: You hear a lot in the press about the ‘problem’ of immigration in Denmark – what is the problem and what is the government trying to accomplish with its various immigration rules?
Søren Pind: It’s a dualistic problem. On the one hand, we need immigration. On the other hand, immigration really changed our society very quickly. The amount of people that came and the changes that occurred were among the fastest in the world. And of course that related to politics. In 2001 the new government was elected, among other things, to stop the uncontrolled migration to Denmark. We have a welfare state so people coming in were received, you know, “Here’s a place to live. Oh, you don’t have work? Here are social benefits.” At a certain point you saw that levels of unemployment were very high for many of the people, so that had to be changed. Quite restrictive measures were put into effect to ensure that these things changed because the larger cities in Denmark couldn’t cope with that development. Now ten years have passed and largely it has been a success. But in not so many years you will see a change in our demographics, where you get many old folks and not so many people to do the work, and we have a social benefit system where it is the people who earn money who pay for the elderly and so on – then of course you have a problem. So the basic fact is that we need immigration which contributes to develop our country.
JC: I find, as an immigrant myself, that it is often very confusing to know where I stand. Now there are suggestions for new exemptions ...
Pind: You are exempted from the indvandringsprøve, where some of it also consists of the Danish language [ed: in addition to language, it is a test of knowledge of Denmark and Danish society]. That is up to now as far as I could go – at least according to certain jurisdictions. We are now setting up a commission to see how far we can go with the exemption rules. We have tried to make an objective measure – and the three criteria we have chosen right now are membership of OECD, in the top third of the UN development index, and I don’t remember the third criteria now [ed: it’s the ability to travel within Europe without a visa], and these turned out countries like Israel, America, Japan, Canada, countries like that. But actually I would like to make more exemptions than just the indvandringsprøve, but we have to get professionals to look at it. Up until now the only reason for which they have accepted that is because Germany and the Dutch do it.
JC: Don’t these rules set you up for accusations of discrimination?
Pind: A border is a discriminative measure. What is interesting is, is it an illegal discriminative measure or not? My ambition is to make it easier for people who are able to contribute to Danish development.
CP: Is the flip side of that to make it more difficult for those who you feel will not contribute?
Pind: I think it will be hard to make it more difficult than today, to be honest. What I would say is that now we have enforced certain rules since 2001. These measures have worked but some of them are also very harsh and therefore we must see how we can liberalise.
JC: A lot of the comments from you that end up in the press seem less rehearsed and more, maybe, honest than other politicians.
Pind: [Laughs] That’s kind of you to say so, but sometimes I also get into trouble for that.
JC: Are there any instances where you said something quickly and then ended up regretting it?
Pind: Of course, many times, but why should I be in politics if I didn’t say what I had on my mind? There is no such thing as perfection, so if people like honesty then sometimes they must also respect that you will make mistakes and you will say something that will annoy them. I can’t do anything about that. I mean, if they want bureaucrats instead, elect them. And I don’t even say that to be provocative, that’s just my point of view. Yes, I am not perfect and yes, I make mistakes but I do my best to speak my mind.
JC: I think one of the statements that at least among our readers was –
Pind: I think I know the one – that if people come here they come here to become Danish.
JC: Exactly. Is that really something that you believe and is that something that is even possible? Or to put it another way, why should I forget that I am an American?
Pind: You shouldn’t. Let me give an example. I once went to a [karaoke] bar in Washington DC and, because I love America very much, I sang ‘I’m Proud to be an American’. Then some guy comes up to me. “Are you an American?” I say “No, no, no” and he wanted to beat me up because I did not have the right to sing that song. And the girl I was with, she explained: “But he loves America more than I do ...” and then I talked him down. But what I am saying is, of course America belongs to him and not to me. Why? Because he is a citizen. And the same goes for Denmark.
Look, you can put this vulgarly: “Denmark for the Danes”, “Germany for Germans” – those kind of vulgarities. Or you can state the simple fact that of course Denmark belongs to the Danes, which is something else. Now in that understanding, if people come to this country they can be either two things - either guests or Danes. It’s just a question of logistics. People who come to spend the rest of their lives here – of course we have the expectation that they should become Danes. But what do I mean by that? Do I mean that everyone has to drink fadøl, wear a clap-hat, love football? Of course not. That is stupidity and also lacks respect for Danish culture to state that that is what it means to be Danish. I didn’t mean it to be provocative. To me it was just a statement of fact.
I think it was more the assimilation comment that created a problem. I had in 2008 written a commentary on the fact that with these very quick changes, you suddenly saw that in Danish kindergartens, certain dishes were no longer served, even though nobody had asked for them not to be served. You suddenly saw that in schools, songs that used to be sung were suddenly not sung anymore. All these kind of changes. And then I wrote this commentary and said: “You know what, if this is what is called integration, I actually prefer assimilation.” Because to me that is a step backwards.
The word ‘assimilation’ is actually a counter to the American melting pot. What I was trying to say is that there are few very basic principles that everyone should adhere to -you could call it trust, democracy, freedom, that kind of stuff. But this was seen as if I said that everyone should become beer-drinking, pork-eating blah blah blah ...
[So when a journalist asked me about it in March] I had two choices: I could say “No”, and then they would have said “Pind is already withdrawing, blah blah” or I could say “Yes, of course” and then explain. And even though it might have offended some, it created a debate with which I was satisfied.
JC: It can often be quite difficult being a foreigner in Denmark, with constantly changing rules, and a language which is very hard to learn. What should everyday Danes do to make things easier for immigrants here? One small example is that I’m often answered back in English when I am attempting to speak Danish, which is very discouraging.
Pind: [Laughs] I think one of the characteristics of the Danish culture is a kind of shyness. A shyness and also a very tight-knit tribal society. Whether you vote for Enhedslisten, or the Danish People’s Party, if Danes go to a confirmation, for instance, they all know what each other thinks. They can disagree, but they know what each other thinks. That’s just the way it is, and that makes some foreigners see the Danes as a closed population, where I would actually rather tend to say that we are the true hobbits of this world. I mean, it’s okay to be involved in the larger world, but we like to keep to ourselves, just drinking our beer and blah blah blah. But it’s not arrogance, it is shyness.
[But] in this world that we are going to live in, this attitude will no longer due. Yes, it is very good to be strong in your own culture but you have to open up even more. I don’t think the Danes know that they are considered in some aspects to be rude to foreigners. But they are. I don’t think a government can do anything about that. That is a cultural thing that we have to discuss with each other. I agree that we have changed the rules many times, and at a certain point I also think that we must strike a balance. My perception is that I think we are getting where we should and that in the future there will be a down-bringing of rules.
JC: We reported that immigration rules have changed 18 times in the last nine years, and now we’re on the verge of an election. What would you expect if the government remains in power, and what would you expect to change if the opposition were to take power?
Pind: I will pursue this political agenda of making easier access for people coming to this country to contribute. I think that the claims of discrimination are unfounded because what we’re doing is actually reducing the rules, not introducing new ones. And I think that the rules have been too rigid. If the opposition wins, they will change some of the incitement structures on social welfare benefits. They do not agree with us that some of the access to welfare state benefits creates incentives that are not very good at pushing people out in the workforce. And they will change this. According to the last Rockwell Fund report, that will create a great danger for the success we’ve had with many more immigrants joining the labour force.
JC: Last question: When will the election be called?
Pind: Very soon. But I don’t know when. It’s only the prime minister who knows, but it will be very soon.
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