Danish employers’ chief: ‘We are completely dependent on Denmark being part of the core of the EU’

Shipyard workers. Denmark, 2011. [Astrid Westvang/Flickr]

The Danish European Parliament election campaign has focused heavily on benefits tourism and criticism of the EU’s single market and free movement. But the benefits of open labour markets in the EU outweigh the problems, says the CEO of the Confederation of Danish Employers (DA) Jørn Neergaard Larsen. Together with the major labour unions, DA has published a declaration on the EU and the labour market, in attempt to reverse the negative debate.

Jørn Neergaard Larsen is CEO of the Confederation of Danish Employers (DA), which represents 14 employers’ organisations with a member ship of more than 28,000 private companies in different sectors. Larsen spoke to EURACTIV’s Henriette Jacobsen.

What is your Europe declaration about?

What’s special about our declaration is that it’s a European policy declaration which has been made in cooperation between all the major trade unions in Denmark and the biggest employer’s organisation. This means that a big majority of companies and workers in our labour market back this declaration. And what is the reason behind making this declaration? We want it to be part of the European Parliament election campaign in Denmark, because we see in the election campaign that there are some themes which appear to be rejecting the value of European integration.

Therefore, we thought it was important for the labour market organisations to tell the media and the population that Denmark is deeply dependent on being a well-integrated part of European cooperation. We are completely dependent on European growth compared to what we see today. We are completely dependent on Denmark being part of the core of the European political environment in the EU.

How does the EU benefit the Danish labour market?

The EU is by far the biggest market for Denmark. This means that 500,000 jobs are depending on exports to the EU. But, when it comes to imports, we’re depending on a coherent Europe to grow. This is where we tell the Danes to “Be aware that the single market and the free movement is something we need.” If we want to see growth in Denmark and in the rest of Europe compared to the growth we see in other parts of the world, then we need the free movement of workers. The individual needs to be able to move within Europe to the employer who is willing to pay the biggest wage for his or her skills. This kind of labour market creates the best opportunities for the worker to use their skills. This is the way to optimise innovation because everyone gets to use his skills in the best possible way. In that way, we develop the strongest production environments.

This is an answer to the reservation towards the EU, which we see in some parts of the Danish political environment. You also see in other parts of Europe; that politicians or parts of the population believe there are too many risks with the free movement. They think it creates a risk of benefit tourism or social dumping. But we send a clear signal that it’s crucial for Denmark and for Europe to keep developing the single market in this area.

What are some of the examples of rhetoric used by politicians around these issues that you don’t like being used?

I don’t know if we are particularly unhappy with the rhetoric, but we think that in this election campaign, there has been a lot of focus on reservations towards the EU or a critical approach to the European cooperation. Of course if a society is in a crisis or at the end of a crisis, then there might be a lot of things that you want to be different. But we need to make sure that national problems don’t become common European problems. A majority of the problems in the member states are problems that the member states themselves can do something about.

The biggest problem in the EU at the moment is that national politicians haven’t made the necessary reforms in time to avoid the amount of debt and the rate of unemployment and youth unemployment, we are witnessing. This is not something to blame the EU for.

The free movement is not a threat; it’s a great opportunity for all of us. Particularly for the individual, but also for a society and therefore, for Europe.

But Denmark is known to be a eurosceptic country already, so do you really think that the Parliament election campaign is ‘worse’ this time around?

Yes, I think so because of this focus on the labour market. This means that there is a lot of focus on the people which come from other countries, but work in Denmark. Almost 6% of workers in Denmark are foreign-born. Many come from other EU counties. This is a workforce we are completely dependent on. It’s a skilled workforce which the companies are happy to have, and they create an important economic output to the Danish economy. Therefore, it’s not acceptable that politicians rely on a non-fact-based platform and discuss these workers and their companies in a negative way. We have often noted that the tone in Denmark isn’t satisfying, that we need to be aware of the value these workers and companies create, and be aware that they are our neighbours. If we don’t correct our assumptions about the irrelevance of people in our neighbor countries, some of our biggest exports markets, coming to Denmark to work, then we will pay for that in the end.

Could it be that previous pro-EU parties are now using critical rhetoric about the EU in order to win back voters that have gone to populist parties?

That’s probably one of the reasons why the election campaign in Denmark has taken a wrong course. In Denmark, some discussions among politicians have focused on benefits tourism, and these discussions often make the EU cooperation look like it will create problems for member states. Here, I think it’s important not to place the responsibility in the wrong place. We have the responsibility for our own social contributions. It’s the Danish politicians who have the responsibility to further develop these arrangements in a way that the country can make it an open, international economy. There have not been any decisions regarding these arrangements in the EU which Danish politicians disagreed with. Therefore, it’s not reasonable to try to make the EU look like the bad guy.

Who are you trying to reach with your declaration: the previous pro-EU politicians who are now becoming populists, voters, or the potential foreign workers who might reconsider coming to Denmark when the debate about them is this negative?

The target group is our own members, as this is our contribution to the election campaign. The politicians have their own discussions, and we need to respect that. But we want to present the values and answers from a labour market point of view to the media, the workers and the voters in order to supply them with facts.

A lot of things have been said, but we think they should know that even though employers’ and labour organisations sometimes disagree, that there are a lot of areas within the EU where we completely agree, which need to be protected and have to be further developed. We also try to tell the Danish population that though we are a small country, we are not marginalised in the EU. In the past 40 years as a member state, we have often been able to affect the EU in a way that serves our interest. We have been treated well, but we have also been able to find the right solutions under different governments. We should not let the crisis affect the way we deal with the EU.

But don’t you think that EP election campaigns are always going to be negative, because these elections basically don’t have much to do with the EU, but are more about punishing the parties that are making up the government at the time of these elections?

No, I disagree. Of course there are some angles in the debate which will affect parties in the Danish parliament when we have local and EU elections as if it was a general election. But at the end of the day, the Danish population is interested in gaining knowledge about the EU and its further development. I don’t doubt that people will listen to our message. It will be the sum of all the messages that the individual voter has received, which will affect his or her stand on election day. This is also based on personal experiences. I’m positive that people will vote according to a European-political agenda. But how they will weigh the importance different things is of course personal.

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