May 15, 2024

“Back to Basics”

Red-Green Alliance candidate Frederikke Hellemann on the challenges facing the Danish Left in 2024

As the European Parliament elections this June draw nearer, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation is conducting a series of interviews with left-wing parties and candidates from across the EU on the election campaign, their political programmes, and the challenges facing left-wing forces domestically and at a European level. The foundation’s Duroyan Fertl spoke to Frederikke Hellemann, second on the list for Danish Left-Green Alliance, or Enhedslisten, about the Danish Left’s priorities in this super election year.

What are Enhedslisten’s key priorities or campaign areas in this European Parliament election campaign? 

For this campaign, we have an umbrella theme of convincing people that Enhedslisten is on their side. This means creating a Europe that is safe, green, and just, that is safe from climate change. We are finding dangerous pesticides and PFAS — so-called “forever chemicals” — in over half of the drinking water in Denmark. We see flooding and forest fires in the south of Europe. All these things point to a Europe that is not safe and not healthy and the only way to combat these things is to complete the green transition.

For this to happen we need everyone on board, and to make sure that it is the polluters — the richest — who pay. Luckily, when you renovate homes, when you build windmills, when you do all the things that are necessary to create a green Europe, you also create many well-paying jobs. And, of course, we want to make sure that those jobs have collective agreements.

Therefore, for us the key priorities are going to be climate action and biodiversity — to finish what we started with the Green Deal, with the Nature Restoration Law, and with the proposals touching on agriculture. We are also campaigning on ensuring public money is spent in the right way. We want to reopen the EU Public Procurement law so we can demand collective agreements when we are buying as governments or as municipalities. We want a fair Europe and a better deal for refugees, with a fairer division among member states, and for all of this to be paid for by the rich.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for the Left at a European level right now?

I think there are a few. One is the cost of living, and people blaming the green transition for increasing prices. Part of getting everyone on board with the green transition is assuring them we are not trying to take away everything they love and make them live in stone huts and play with sticks instead of iPhones. We need to figure out how to make people feel comfortable and unafraid about the fact that their whole life is going to change.

The Left has the answers, but when we say that a green transition needs to benefit the many, not just the few, our message often gets lost. Therefore, I understand why people are afraid, tired, and nervous about how they are going to pay the bills. I do not think it helps that many Green parties are basically liberals on bikes, pushing green issues without safeguards for those living pay-check to pay-check. The Left needs to be more considerate and explain things better. Of course, the Right has an interest in telling everyone we are this “ban-everything” Left, but I think we can and must do better too.

Another aspect where I think the Left is struggling is on security and defence, which has taken a toll on every left party across Europe. I do not see any alternatives being provided by those left parties who oppose sending weapons to Ukraine or providing ammunition that’s European-produced. I simply do not see that as a credible answer. This is not to point the finger — every left party is struggling with the difficulty of how to be credible on defence in a world that is very unsafe and where war is back on the continent.

What about the challenge of the far right?

We have seen the far right growing for a long time in some countries, while in others it is more recent. I have Portuguese friends who are shocked at how suddenly the far right has flooded the political system, shifting the discourse and the centre of politics. For a country like Denmark, on the other hand, this flood came decades ago. The reasons differ from country to country but there are common issues. In particular, the far right is very good at presenting simplistic answers and profiting from fear — fear of losing a job, or not being able to pay a bill — and it is easy to point the finger at migrants or refugees.

There is, I think, a genuine disillusionment with the system. My generation does not see itself being able to afford buying a house anytime soon or being wealthier than the previous generation — the generational contract is being broken. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer, and that disillusionment in the system, that feeling that something is wrong or rotten — the Left is not currently picking that up and providing the necessary answers. Instead, the far right is taking up this issue.

I also think the Nordic and Northern European countries, by letting other countries carry the bulk of the migration issue, are selling those countries to this far-right wave, and this wave is coming back to bite us. When people like Meloni are in power, how will we have a green transition, or women’s rights, or all those other values we stand for? Ukraine also showed — when 4 million people were welcomed across the EU with open arms — that we can solve this issue, but the political will is lacking.

How does the question of left-wing cooperation at a European level feature in your perspectives?

In February, we gathered some of the most prominent European left forces in Copenhagen and it was very inspiring — there are some issues where still we do not see eye to eye, but there is so much more that unites us. The wider European Left has become more fragmented, but in the parties that joined us in Copenhagen, we saw a shared way of being left that is modern and focused on a just green transition. I think we can benefit from sharing our perspectives and strategies and supporting each other. It is always helpful, when presenting new proposals, that you can say these radical perspectives for change we want at a European level are not just our ideas, but we share them with hundreds of thousands of party activists across the continent.

Enhedslisten’s own position on the EU has evolved quite noticeably over the past few years. Could you outline the party’s current stance?

I would say the party’s position has changed a lot in some ways, but not much at all in others. Most obviously, we ran in the 2019 European elections under our own banner, rather than as a part of People’s Movement against the EU.[1] In 2014, the party decided narrowly not to run, but we did so in 2019, as part of our changing view on what can be done in the European Parliament. There was frustration with the notion put forward by some that the only change you can make in the EU is the colour of toilet paper. I think climate change and the refugee crisis, and other transnational or trans-border problems, show the need for equally trans-border answers, and while the European Parliament is not the solution, it is better to try what you can from the inside than to not try at all.

There were branches of the party that only reluctantly campaigned for the People’s Movement and wanted more clear-cut left answers than what it, as a broad front, could provide. I think the People’s Movement did great work in the European Parliament, but conveyed a muddled message, on the one hand saying you cannot fix anything in the EU, while on the other actually doing so. Whereas they undersold their achievements, we flaunt ours.

Policy-wise, I think the most notable change is stepping back from the EU exit demand. I think Brexit showed the true consequences of what leaving the EU means. The party remains critical of the EU system, of the treaties, the policies, and the lack of transparency, and in that sense, our position has not really changed. Our old party programme did not just call for Denmark to leave, however — we wanted to destroy and abolish the EU for everyone else, which was maybe not so helpful. The current programme keeps leaving as an option but does not consider it relevant right now. Of course, if the Orbanite right wing becomes the driving force in the Council, and human rights, the rule of law, and green legislation all go out the window, then we should reconsider.

Enhedslisten’s attitude towards NATO has also changed. What is the party’s current approach to NATO, and to security policy more generally?

I think the biggest change we’ve made is to accept that NATO is what we have, and is where we’ll be for the foreseeable future, that there’s a war on the European continent, and an authoritarian leader willing to break the rules and invade and annex land. At the same time, NATO has shown it is not focused on territorial defence but on waging offensive wars abroad, and our criticism of it remains relevant and legitimate. There are NATO members, for example Turkey, constantly creating refugees and breaking international law by suppressing the Kurds.

Denmark’s NATO membership is not something we are happy about. If it were up to us, we would rather have a different security order, some sort of Nordic defence alliance, based on territorial defence, with equally democratic partners. But NATO is what we have, and rather than saying we want to leave it here and now, or we should have done so yesterday, we’re saying, “okay, in an unsafe world, let’s not make ourselves less safe by leaving the only defence union that we do have.”

This issue has been dormant in the Left for so long that I cannot remember having ever discussed NATO membership during the last 16 years I have been a member of the party. It has always been “We’re against NATO. That’s it, done”, and then on to the next thing. I think in that sense the Left has been a bit naive in not discussing what kind of defence we want, what kind of geopolitical alliances we want to be a member of, and I think this fact has blown up in our faces.

Staying at the domestic level, what are currently the main political debates or contradictions in Denmark?

One issue that is very hot right now is a proposed CO2 tax on agriculture, which also plays into the bigger question of who should pay for the green transition and the fact that farmers will have to be part of that change. Then there are broader questions about who in general is going to pay. The government has just announced exemptions for private jets, and that they will cut taxes on income from stocks, in a way that very finely and narrowly benefits a literal 1 percent.

So, here we have the issue of who are you governing for, the rich or the poor — and the Social Democrats are in a position where they’re governing to the benefit of the very rich. Then there is the question of what has happened to the welfare state, and that sort of thing. These, I would say, are some of the key issues in the national context right now.

During the last mandate, Enhedslisten was in a support arrangement with a Social Democrat government. What is your relationship with the “across-the-centre” coalition that governs in Denmark today?

Things are a bit weird right now in Danish politics. We usually had alternating left-bloc or right-bloc governments, where it’s a Social Democratic leader supported by the Left, and then a liberal leader supported by the far right, and so on. Now we have this centrist government, which includes the Social Democrats and is a majority government. This is a whole new experience for us and creates a new, more restrictive climate for negotiations, where you can maybe change only a comma here or there in legislation as the government has its own parliamentary majority.

We are in clear opposition to this government, and we want it out of power as fast as possible, but it is new for us to be in a position where there is simultaneously a left majority nationally, and both a left and right opposition. Usually, it is one or the other. So, it’s very different to what we’re used to, and I would say it’s quite difficult right now.

Enhedslisten’s results have declined over the past couple of national elections, following a record high after the euro crisis. Can you explain this slump in support?

The last national election was a disappointment, to put it mildly. We were expecting maybe 6 or even 7 percent, so it was a shock to get only a little over 5 percent. Some of it was bad luck: we put the green transition at the centre of our platform but were outcompeted by a resurgence of The Alternative, a green party we had thought was going to disappear. They suddenly confronted us with competition on an issue — reducing animal production by 50 percent — where we had thought we stood alone.

I also think that, while all the studies show the current level of pig production in Denmark is not sustainable, by making this demand in the way we did, what people heard was that we were coming for their lunch, for their leverpostej (liver pâté), and for the things they hold dear. We were not good enough at presenting an argument for the great benefits that would come from making Denmark completely climate-neutral.

We also needed to distinguish ourselves better from the Socialist People’s Party (SF). In Enhedslisten, we always want to talk about ten different things at once and it’s hard for us to just say one thing again and again. SF are very good at sticking to their talking points, even if some of them are campaigns we launched, like the ratio of adults per child in kindergartens. This suddenly became their issue because they just kept on raising it, and then after five years people started listening to them and they owned that agenda.

How is the party working to reverse this decline, and win a greater audience for left-wing ideas?

As well as being very good at taking our policies, I think a lot of SF’s current increase in support is “borrowed votes” from people who will likely return to the Social Democrats when they are no longer part of this centrist government and become the “good old Social Democrats” again. SF are well placed in the sense that if you want to vote centre-left, but Enhedslisten is too much of a step, they provide a sort of soft landing space.

What we have tried to do is, in a sense, to go back to our roots. We are talking much more about class than we have in years. We are being very clear about who benefits from the government’s policies. We are talking a lot more about regulating the banks and democratic ownership. So, it’s a bit back to basics, and I think that might resonate, that people see that there are differences and Denmark is not homogenous when it comes to income and wealth, and that the rich are protecting their rich friends in politics and business.

You are second on your party’s list for the upcoming European election. How do you expect Enhedslisten to perform in June?

I would be really surprised if we did not win one seat. Of course, elections are always unpredictable. The last European election in Denmark became a climate election, with young people flooding into voting booths and voting for the first time. I am unsure if the same sort of mood is there this time though. The centre and centre-right are trying to remove the green issue from debate, by (falsely) claiming we all agree on the necessary measures, in order to make the election about defence and security — issues that they are strong on.

I think we also face a challenge in reengaging young voters, especially climate voters, who are feeling disillusioned and have lost a bit of hope. It’s not Fridays for Future filling the streets today, it’s angry farmers, and that does something completely different to this election — even the green parties are making concessions, talking about lessening the burden on farmers, so it is going to be a big challenge.

Another risk for us is the choice by SF to enter an electoral alliance with the Social Democrats and the Alternative, even signing the government’s European policy paper that says Denmark should work towards a “Rwanda model” for refugees at the EU level. I find it pretty wild that they’re offering the Social Democrats their spare votes when it is clear that Enhedslisten is the party closest to SF. Therefore, I think they should reconsider, and there remains a danger to us being left out of such arrangements, but we should return at least one seat, and be able to continue the fight for radical change at a European level.


[1] The People’s Movement against the EU was founded in 1972 as a cross-party campaign platform opposing Denmark’s referendum on EEC membership. The People’s Movement was represented in the European Parliament from 1979 until 2019, when it lost its single seat in the European Parliament election.


Frederikke Hellemann is second on the list for the European election for the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark and works as a Policy Advisor for The Left in the European Parliament.

Top photo: Quentin Bruno / The Left

This article was first published on May 13, 2024, on rosalux.de.


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