Prompted by a question form a follower on Twitter I will try to answer a question which I can’t really answer with the information I have access to: Is the (re-)introduction of border controls in Denmark following the agreement between the government and the Danish People’s Party (and the single Christian Democratic MP) a vote winner for the parties?
First, we can note that the Social Democrats effectively support the measure even if the party disguises its position as an attack on earlier cuts in customs services. So we shouldn’t expect the new controls to be rolled back to any significant degree in the (likely) event of a centre-left win in the coming election.
Second, DF has always been opposed to Denmark’s participation in the Schengen Agreement and fundamentally want the reintroduction of full police and customs controls at the Danish borders. The party’s electoral base is generally very anti-immigration and Euro-sceptic, so even if the new controls do not fully live up to the party’s demands, we can expect DF to use the agreement aggressively in the coming electoral campaign and to call for even stricter controls. That DF has described Eastern Europeans as the main cause of increased crime levels (for my sceptical take on that, see this post) fits nicely into the picture.
The situation for the two governing parties is more difficult to gauge. Polls have indicated that voters in general put less emphasis on immigration compared to five or ten years ago, so running a campaign on immigration and integration policies should be less of a vote winner for mainstream parties in 2011. On the other hand, the change in the electorate’s priorities doesn’t imply that Danes have become more liberal with regard to immigration and integration. Rather, the numbers would indicate that Danish voters are happy with strict regulations of immigration.
We can note that the Liberal Party, in particular, has played the “law-and-order”-card with regard to border controls while the Conservatives (whose leader hold the Justice portfolio) have been very quiet on the subject. As it is, the Conservative leader Lars Barfoed rejected calls for tighter border controls in late March and his rejection was echoed by Foreign Minister Lene Espersen, calling them irrelevant from a policing perspective, a couple of weeks ago. The Liberals and Conservatives are trying to get around this by claiming that the new border controls will be customs and not immigration controls but in practice most people are likely to fail to see any difference, especially as the controls are motivated with anti-immigration and law-and-order arguments. (As another Twitterer noted, the entire border controls discussion is based on a – possibly deliberate – failure to understand how effective policing of criminals work).
My interpretation of the situation is that the Liberal Party is generally pretty indifferent about European integration these days, especially as it tries to appeal to working-class voters using nationalistic and anti-immigration arguments, while the Conservatives find themselves in a more complicated situation. On the one hand, the party wants to maintain a law-and-order profile. On the other hand, the party’s base in the business community want Denmark to be fully integrated in the EU and make the mobility of goods and people as easy as possible. At the same time, that base only gives the Conservatives some 5 percent of the votes and my educated guess is that only 10-20 percent of the electorate support extensive European integration wholeheartedly.
The government is performing an interesting and difficult act here. To Danish voters it touts the measure as the introduction of permanent and comprehensive controls, to EU partners it claims that the controls are carefully targeted. Obviously the extent of the measures, the motivation (Eastern European crime) as well as the timing (when the principle of free movement is under attack from major EU countries and the EMU is showing severe weaknesses) means that the Danish policies can be used as an example by governments wanting to roll back EU integration.
But to conclude: Are border controls a vote winning issue? I would argue that DF sees it as such while the Liberal Party at least doesn’t think that it is a vote loosing issue. The reaction from the Social Democrats indicates that they see the issue in the same way as DF even if they hesitate to use crude xenophobic arguments in public.
What else? Well, some Swedish politicians have reacted furiously to the new controls but their arguments are met with little or no understanding in Denmark as Danish politicians point to the Swedish border controls as a model for the Danish measures. (Note by the way DF’s argument that only cars and lorries with “foreign” number-plates will be targeted). Similarly, criticism from German politicians has been shrugged off by Danish ministers.
One final note: That DF would get “something” related to immigration policy in exchange for supporting cuts to the Early Retirement Benefit was always a no-brainer. Danish politics has worked according to this model since 2001 with the Liberal Party as a very supportive partner in the tightening of immigration and integration policies.