The Danes are, overwhelmingly, a happy bunch. If you believe the contentment surveys and liveability lists, Denmark is among the happiest nations on earth, enjoying some of the best quality of life. It’s not hard to see why: it has among the highest per-capita GDPs in the EU and unemployment is relatively low. Education is free, work–life balance is paramount, and Danish social-welfare programs are the envy of many (just ask Bernie Sanders). Plus: Danes know how to hygge (be cosy)!
Happiness & Harmony?
There is more to the Danes’ story of contentment. Stroll around almost any Danish town and you’ll experience some of the most harmonious civic spaces anywhere. Look a bit closer, however, and (as in a Hans Christian Andersen fable) you’ll find a darker side, too. As with other European nations, there’s been a gradual shift to the political right in this famously liberal nation. Concern has grown over immigration – particularly from Muslim countries – and an erosion of traditional values.
For all the talk of assimilation and the comprehensive state effort to achieve it, racial, cultural and religious fault lines and prejudices remain. This challenge to tolerance has unnerved many Danes; many of them avoid confronting their underlying resentment towards non-European newcomers. In mid-2015 the issue was highlighted when the anti-immigration, anti-EU Danish People's Party (DPP) won 21% of the vote at the general election, becoming the second-largest party in the parliament. Pollsters had notably underestimated the party's support – possibly due to some voters' reluctance to openly admit their backing of DPP policies.
Urban versus Rural
Internal class divisions (of a sort) have also appeared – allegedly fanned by the media – between urban and rural Denmark. There is much marginalising talk about the so-called udkantsdanmark or den rådne banan (the rotten banana), the sparsely populated, 'peripheral' areas of the country. These outlying regions are often negatively portrayed in the press as home to the poor (and poorly educated and/or unemployed), while the wealthy are concentrated in the larger cities.
Urbanisation is not a new phenomenon, but Copenhagen's population is expected to increase by 15% in the coming decade, according to Danmarks Statistik. This is placing pressure on the city's infrastructure and affordability, while also posing questions about the future prospects of udkantsdanmark. In response, since 2015 the Danish government has relocated a number of government agencies (and 4000 jobs) out of the capital to regional centres.
Politics & Economics
Danish politics is a complex, multiparty beast, and there is a long tradition of minority governments and consensus politics (watch the Borgen TV series for a fictional primer). As of the 2015 elections, nine parties are represented in parliament; government is formed by coalition.
The political pendulum swung right in the most recent general election, held in 2015 amid concerns over immigration and the government's tough economic reforms. After one term in power, the left-leaning coalition led by Social Democrat Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Denmark's first female prime minister) was ousted and a centre-right coalition took its place. Denmark's current prime minister is Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who was PM before Thorning-Schmidt won power in 2011. Time will tell if the pendulum swings again at the next election (due by June 2019).
What is not under dispute is that the DPP is a growing force, winning 21% of the vote in 2015 (almost doubling its support from 2011). Many voters in udkantsdanmark (the sparsely populated, 'peripheral' areas of the country) feel the answers to their problems lie in the DPP's policies, as opposed to Social Democrat promises. As in other Nordic countries, populist parties like the DPP frame the choice for voters as agreeing to high immigration levels or protecting the welfare system (with the subtext of 'taking care of our own').
As well as their admirable attitudes to civic duties (voter turnout at the last parliamentary election was around 86%; there is relatively low tax evasion), Danes operate with a green conscience.
While some Western governments continue to debate the veracity of climate-change science, Denmark gets on with innovative, sustainable business. Check out State of Green (the country's 'green brand'; www.stateofgreen.com) for insight into how it's doing this.
Wind power generates around 40% of Denmark’s total energy consumption, and the country is a market leader in wind-power technology. The long-term goal for Danish energy policy is clear: the entire energy supply is to be independent of fossil fuels by 2050. The city of Copenhagen has pledged to go carbon-neutral by 2025; the capital has already reduced its carbon emissions by more than 40% since 1990 while its population has grown by 50%.
Cycling culture is another example of Denmark's green outlook. Copenhagen has around 400km of continuous, safe cycle paths, and in 2016 the number of bikes actually surpassed the number of cars in the city centre. The cycling infrastructure continues to expand, and more cities are seeking to learn from the bike-friendly master.