How the Danish Prime Minister’s flirting with Israel perpetuates the lacking Danish European commitment
written by European Horizons at KU
The choice made by Denmark’s Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, to collaborate with Israel in the rolling-out of covid-19 vaccines not only shows the lack of commitment to the European project. It is moreover a symbol of Denmark’s hypocritical inconsistency, since the country’s attack on the EU’s lack of efficiency can also be traced back to Denmark’s own reservation.
The story of how the social democratic Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, surprisingly prioritized a physical visit to Israel in order to present and consider a collaboration covered Danish newsflow for weeks in early April (Statsministeriet, 2021). The result of this visit was that Denmark, Austria, and Israel should begin a ‘common research and development fund,’ because Israel had been extremely successful in the roll-out of their covid-19 vaccinations (Nielsen, 2021).
Three strands of criticism
This decision was heavily criticized from multiple angles, three of which have received widespread media attention. Firstly, prioritizing a physical state visit in the middle of a pandemic emits a sense of seriousness and insistency, which is a political sign in itself (Nielsen, 2021). Frederiksen’s government has consistently rejected the political nature of the visit, insisting on the claim that vaccine production is a public health issue and thus not political (Nielsen, 2021). This is simply not the case. The visit took place in an election year for the incumbent Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, sparking claims of Frederiksen indirectly promoting and showing political support for Netanyahu, a controversial figure in Denmark (Thomsen, 2021). One can agree or disagree with the decision, but it is de facto a foreign political decision to go to Israel, in the middle of a pandemic, to collaborate with a Prime Minister in his election year, around the EU, Denmark’s natural choice of collaboration. Especially since the Danish Foreign Minister, Jeppe Kofod, has boasted the importance of values and signals in Danish foreign policy (Dyjak et. al., 2020).
Secondly, this decision was made without proper consultation in parliament. In the Danish negative parliamentary system, Frederiksen is the head of a minority government whose office capacity is completely dependent on the constant support from the coalition parties on the left-wing. Thus, making solo decisions are not only unpopular, they are democratically problematic.
Thirdly, it is utterly peculiar for Frederiksen to engage in collaborations with a country that does not itself produce vaccines, seeing as the production and long-term supplies are and will remain the main vaccine-related issues for Denmark in the foreseeable future. This decision seems even stranger in the light that Denmark’s neighbouring countries, Germany and Sweden, are in fact producing vaccines. The counterargument that Frederiksen has relied on when met with this question, is that Israel are ‘world champions’ at rolling out vaccines (TV2, 2021). However, she said the same thing about Denmark in a debate with all 10 party leaders (Lynard, 2021). And, indeed, Denmark is doing comparatively well at rolling out the vaccines (ECDC, 2021). This forges the question: If Israel cannot help with supplies, and rollout is not a problem, why choose Israel as collaborators at all?
While these three strands of criticism are all valid points, they fail to address the bigger picture of historical Danish scepticism towards the EU, which is further underscored by the Danish-Israeli vaccine partnership.
Denmark’s double-edged scepticism
In order to fully understand the argument, it is necessary to rewind the clock back to the EU budgetary negotiations last Summer. As The European Council of Foreign Relations wrote, the new budgetary package “may well be remembered as a giant leap in the history of European solidarity” (Zerka, 2021). However, the EU’s budget with the goal of further economic integration was under pressure from an informal alliance between four member states, The Frugal Four. The alliance consisted of The Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, and — unsurprisingly — Denmark. At first glance, Denmark’s welfare state and expansive fiscal policies should prone Danish politicians, economists, and citizens not to fear structural reform and large public investments. However, Denmark has always been scared of giving more power to the EU. We can see this with the Danish opt-outs from the EU cooperation, with our own Danish currency, and with our historical alliance with the UK, who are now not even members of the Union anymore. Anything that remotely smells of political, cultural, or economic relinquishment of sovereignty scare Danes away. So when the EU suggests economic cooperation and centralization, the world’s largest welfare state is suddenly referred to as one of the “fiscally conservative member states” (Pawel, 2021).
When talks of a shared vaccination strategy began, Denmark took on the same reservations. This was even though the EU offered the common advantage: Together, the EU could push down the price for everyone, making the vaccines affordable. Furthermore, no country would have to infringe their citizen’s personal information or break other ethical standards in order to get a hold of the vaccines. On the other hand, grand cooperation, as usual, entails a bigger and therefore a slower bureaucracy, which means that EU-member states would have to wait for a longer time before they could start vaccinating their citizens. After a while, Frederiksen ended up becoming a part of the common vaccination strategy with an underlying critique of the EU’s slow process, even though she herself contributed to this slowing down by her hesitation and reservations. It is evident that the EU necessarily has to slow down its legal and bureaucratic processes when a country like Denmark hesitates, desists and lacks compliance of the broader European community.
The symbolic significance for Danish-EU-relations
As if this is not enough, Denmark now distances itself from the EU under the claim that the EU is too ineffective, slow, and simply cannot get the job done regarding the roll-out of vaccines, further perpetuating Frederiksen’s hypocrisy. Denmark with Frederiksen in the front seat chooses to prioritize its own population of less than 6 million people, and turns its back on the EU on the basis of a critique that Frederiksen herself has contributed to with the country’s lack of commitment. Instead, she dreams of vaccine factories shared between Denmark, Austria, and Israel (Benson, 2021). This is not only hypocritical, it is selfish, it is insufficient, and it lacks the solidarity that the EU was built on. As a result, she fails to grasp — or simply chooses to ignore — the consequences of neglecting European solidarity by selfishly prioritizing her own population and ultimately her own reelection.
Benson, Peter Suppli, and Thomas Mikkel Mortensen. 2021. “Tanken om en dansk vaccinefabrik er tillokkende. Men realismen er svær at se”. Berlingske.
Dyjak, Sofie, and Sean Coogan. 2020. “Regeringen varsler ny udenrigspolitik: Ingen må være i tvivl om, hvor Danmark står”. Denmark’s Radio. https://www.dr.dk/nyheder/udland/regeringen-varsler-ny-udenrigspolitik-ingen-maa-vaere-i-tvivl-om-hvor-danmark-staar
European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. 2021. “Covid-19 Vaccine Rollout Overview”. ECDC. https://covid19-vaccine-report.ecdc.europa.eu/
Lynard, Esther, and Morten Nielsen. 2021. “Følg partilederdebatten her.” TV2. https://nyheder.tv2.dk/2021-03-11-foelg-partilederdebatten-her
Nielsen, Nicolas S.. 2021. “Bred kritik af Mette Frederiksen: Israel-rejse var ‘helt uforståelig’ og en ‘fejlprioritering’.” Denmark’s Radio. https://www.dr.dk/nyheder/politik/bred-kritik-af-mette-frederiksen-israel-rejse-var-helt-uforstaaelig-og-en
Statsministeriet. 2021. “Statsminister Mette Frederiksen i Israel den 4. marts 2021.” Regeringen.dk. https://www.regeringen.dk/nyheder/2021/statsminister-mette-frederiksen-i-israel-den-4-marts-2021/
Thomsen, Per Bang, and Pia Guld Munksgaard. 2021. “Mette Frederiksen om møde i Israel: Det her kommer til at betyde flere vacciner til danskerne.” Denmark’s Radio. https://www.dr.dk/nyheder/udland/mette-frederiksen-om-moede-i-israel-det-her-kommer-til-betyde-flere-vacciner-til
TV2. 2021. “Mette Frederiksen forventer vaccinationer i årevis.” TV2. https://nyheder.tv2.dk/samfund/2021-03-04-mette-frederiksen-forventer-vaccinationer-i-arevis
Zerka, Pawel. 2021, “The frugal blues: An underappreciated threat to the European project.” The European Council of Foreign Relations. https://ecfr.eu/article/commentary_the_frugal_blues_an_underappreciated_threat_to_the_european_proj/