Back in the winter 2008-2009 Thomas Larsen, the political editor of what was then Berlingske Tidende, managed to destroy most of his reputation as a political commentator when he was the last person in Denmark to insist that Anders Fogh Rasmussen was not seeking an international position. It was too obvious for just about everybody (this link goes to an earlier post on the blog) that Larsen wasn’t making any analyses but simply passing on what centrally placed sources in the Liberal Party wanted conveyed. The nickname “His Master’s Voice” was used.
Who the centrally placed sources were is still not entirely clear but Larsen was later rewarded with access to Lars Løkke Rasmussen in order to write an interview book which was sympathetic to the beleaguered prime minister, a book which I haven’t read by the way. If I should make a – completely unsourced guess – guess about the identity of Larsen’s contact, we might be looking for somebody with the initials C, H and F. But that’s just my guess.
Anyway, when Berlingske publishes a comment by the very same Thomas Larsen arguing that the days in office of Integration Minister Birthe Rønn Hornbech are as good as numbered, it is a piece of information which actually carries some weight. The Liberal Party wants to send the message that holding on to Rønn Hornbech is no longer essential for the party – and needless to say, some of the government’s smaller supporting parties have come forward calling for an inquiry into the Integration Ministry’s handling of applications for Danish citizenship made by stateless refugees and their descendants. Throwing a minister overboard shortly before an election is highly unusual, but then again these are unusual times in many ways.
The story of Rønn Hornbech’s term in office is a strange one. Up until 2007 she was the darling of the centre-left (!) as an outspoken defender of legal principles. Post-2007 she managed to destroy her reputation even more thoroughly than Larsen.
So is she a bad minister? Not necessarily: She has also been in charge of the Ministry for Ecclesiastics and anybody with the slightest knowledge of the Church of Denmark will know that this portfolio is potentially explosive due to the way the Church is organised and the broad range of theological traditions accepted by the Church. But in the past three years, there have been few problems which have reached the media and none which have given rise to political action. If Rønn Hornbech was such a terrible minister, then surely some bomb would have gone off in the crypts of the ministry.
This means that we may have to look elsewhere for explanations. Rønn Hornbech is known to have a religious interest so as a Minister for Ecclesiastics she has her heart and interest in the running of the Church of Denmark and as a lawyer she also has the tools to solve legal problems and mediate in potential conflicts. The question is if she has her heart in integration policy in a similar way.
By this, I don’t want to imply that she is a liberal with regard to immigration policy but rather that she is stuck between a set of goals which she in all likelihood agrees with and a set of means and political strategies which she doesn’t know how to defend or use. The result has been that the relationship between the government and the Danish People’s Party more than once has descended into something looking very much like a political mess and that the running of the ministry similarly appears to be out of control.
The scandal which may eventually relieve Rønn Hornbech of the burden of ministerial office is not of her making. The decision to give – or the practice involving giving – stateless refugees misleading information about their legal rights dates back to 2002 when Bertel Haarder was Immigration Minister and the practice continued during Rikke Hvilshøj’s term in office. Obviously, Rønn Hornbech should have corrected the practice as soon as she learnt of it but we should remember that two members of the present government and one former minister are in the firing line here. Even if the practice is in breach of international conventions, it would fit the government’s line of restricting the access and rights of refugees from non-Western countries and in that way it is part of a larger picture.
Similarly, we have reason to assume that most of the government’s and DF’s voters would support – or at least not object to – a policy which meant that a group of refugees was denied a special right to Danish citizenship even if Denmark was obliged to grant this group special rights. DF can allow itself to speak out against the idea of international conventions but a governing party is in a more complicated position. A small state cannot disregard conventions as easily as larger states as there may be a price to pay in international negotiations.
All of this makes immigration policy in general and the stateless refugee question in particular very complicated to handle. From the 1990s onward a string of Justice, Interior and Immigration ministers have tried and many have either suffered defeats or decided to leave politics early. When Anders Fogh Rasmussen picked Birthe Rønn Hornbech as Immigration Minister in late 2007, he may have hoped that her legal skills would be sufficient to keep the area outside of public controversies.
As events since 2007 have shown, they were not.