The process which led to the announced resignation of the Danish Food and Environment Minister Eva Kjer Hansen was a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Along the way, the process revealed some of the vulnerabilities of the incumbent Liberal government and prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s way of handling controversial issues and political partners.
An executive summary of the affair would read something like this: The Food and Environment Minister proposed changes to the regulation of fertilization of cultivated areas which would allow for an increased level of nitrogen emissions. It was revealed that the proposal had been prepared in close cooperation with the agrarian splinter group “Bæredygtigt Landbrug” (“Sustainable Agriculture”), rather than the official interest organisation “Landbrug og Fødevarer” (The Danish Agriculture and Food Council) and that some of the calculations behind the proposal had been made in such a way as to conceal the short-term effects of increased emissions on the environment.
When news of the doctored calculations were published, the Conservatives on Tuesday declared that while they would support the proposed changes in the Folketing, they had lost confidence in the minister. Normally, a statement of this kind would lead to the resignation of the minister in question. Prime minister Løkke Rasmussen, however, decided to raise the stakes considerably Tuesday evening by calling all leaders of the three other centre-right parties to a meeting, hinting that the minister would only resign after a vote of no confidence in the Folketing and that a vote could result in a snap election. Following several rounds of negotiations, especially between Løkke Rasmussen and Søren Pape Poulsen, the leader of the Conservatives, Food and Environment Minister Kjer Hansen on Saturday announced her resignation while a possible amendment to the original proposal, aimed at limiting the short-term impact of the increase in fertilization levels and nitrogen emissions, has been left hanging in the balance.
Several aspects make the affair noteworthy.
First, even if the first Fogh government had an anti-environmentalist agenda – which was later reversed – the present Liberal government stands as the most aggressively agrarian Danish government since the luckless Madsen-Mygdal government of the late 1920s. This created the potential for a conflict with the ailing Conservative Party which has tried to occupy a moderate environmentalist position since the mid-1980. The Liberals’ calculation may have been that the Conservatives following the party’s latest electoral defeat would be too weak and scared of the prospect of an early election to press demands on these issues.
Second, the Liberal agricultural policies have been formulated in close cooperation with “Bæredygtigt Landbrug”, an aggressively anti-environmentalist splinter group mobilising some 4000 Danish farmers, rather than the established interest organisation, the Agriculture and Food Council. Politiken editor Bo Lidegaard in a column published last Sunday suggested that this was a result of another set of strategic calculations by the Liberal leadership. In Lidegaard’s interpretation, the Liberals found themselves competing with the anti-regulation and anti-environmentalist Liberal Alliance for not only votes but also economic contributions from the farming community and as “Bæredygtigt Landbrug” effectively organizes the larger farmers, economic considerations would lead the Liberals to follow “Bæredygtigt Landbrug’s” agenda. If Lidegaard is right, this would mean that the traditional corporative system of governance in agricultural policy with the Agriculture and Food Council playing a central part is being replaced by a competitive system where control of parties’ sources of income is the central power resource.
Third, rather than following the usual path of de-escalating the conflict following the Conservative declaration of no confidence – which was backed by the five opposition parties – Løkke Rasmussen reacted by escalating the conflict. Here, the question is if – or rather to which degree – Løkke Rasmussen was playing a short or a long game. In the short game, Løkke Rasmussen’s aim would be to force the Conservatives to back down from the declaration of no confidence. This would be an unprecedented move and would destroy any leverage the Conservatives might have in the present Folketing. In Løkke Rasmussen’s calculations this would remove one source of conflict during the electoral term – especially with regard to tax policy – as any threat the Conservatives might present would already be discounted as not credible. Ideally, this would also lead to the final demise of the historically weak Conservatives at the next election.
Here, the outcome suggests a major miscalculation by Løkke Rasmussen as the Conservatives upheld their position, even at the threat of an early election in March or April. What Løkke Rasmussen and the Liberals can aim for now is the withdrawal of the proposed amendments to the original changes in fertilization legislation. At the same time, the Conservative leader has demonstrated his stamina in negotiations with the notoriously shrewd prime minister, not only in the electoral arena but just as importantly in the parliamentary arena.
The long game would be aimed not at the Conservatives but at the other two parties which form the parliamentary basis of the government, the Danish People’s Party and Liberal Alliance. Liberal Alliance, in particular, has demanded significant cuts in income taxes since the 2015 election and toyed with the prospect of forcing an election on tax policy during 2016 if the government does not accommodate the party’s demands. Løkke Rasmussen’s brinkmanship on the fertilizer issue could have been a way of warning Liberal Alliance leader Anders Samuelsen that there will be a very limited room for negotiations when the government presents its tax reform proposals some time during 2016. Here, the outcome of last week’s stand-off may have been to expose the Løkke Rasmussen’s fragile parliamentary base on environmental and – politically more important – economic policy.