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Constituting a New Tradition

“My grandfather gave me many pieces of advice. One of them I remember particularly well, for it was very wise: remember where you’re from – and behave!” Referring to his own immigrant background, those were the closing words of Mayor Jens Kramer Mikkelsen of Copenhagen as he welcomed four hundred new Danish citizens into the Town Hall on Constitution Day, Denmark’s national holiday.  With more than one third of Denmark’s ethnic minorities living in Copenhagen, this cosmopolitan city is most active in integrating “old” and “new” Danes.  Mayor Mikkelsen’s welcome party is a recent and controversial example of this effort.  

In 1849, King Frederick VII of Denmark decided to end the absolute monarchy and declared himself constitutional king.  On June 5th this change became codified in The Constitution of the Kingdom of Denmark.  Ever since then, the Danes have been celebrating that day as their “Constitution Day.”  They usually gather in forests and invite politicians to deliver patriotic speeches.  

This year, however, Mayor Mikkelsen decided to add something new to the usual festivities: a party for immigrants who received their Danish citizenship – the “new Danes,” as they are called in Denmark – in the past year.  This was not an impromptu decision by the mayor.  He had this idea as far back as the fall of 2002.  In an interview with Hanne Fall Nielsen of Politiken (one of the premier daily newspapers in Denamark)  on October 3rd, Mayor Mikkelsen said, “Seeking, and getting, Danish citizenship is a big step for everybody.  It’s a choice of the individual, who has often been here for a long time.  When people born outside of the country actively choose to be Danish, they should be received with warmth and a party.” 

The idea itself received broad support from the six deputy mayors, including those from the opposition parties.    The appropriate date on which to have this welcome ceremony, however, was of great controversy.  From the very beginning, Mayor Mikkelsen insisted on Constitution Day, to underline the fact that the new Danes chose to live in a democratic society and to adhere to its principles, but not everyone agreed with his choice.  The Integration Council, an advisory board to the city government, suggested to have the welcome party on June 14th, the International Integration Day. Hikmat Hussein, president of the Council, said that “The symbolism is better with  International Day.  That way, we’d be stressing ethnic equality on all fronts.”  Bo Asmus Kjeldgaard, the Deputy Mayor for Family and Labour, seconded the Council’s recommendation.  He also thought that it was better to throw the party on International Day. And he did not understand why Mayor Mikkelsen was so adamant about having it on Constitution Day. “It would definitely have been an advantage to link the two events [the International Day celebration and the welcome party]. It would also have been bigger… We’re always happy to see events like this taking place, but one can question whether this was good planning,´´ said Mayor Kjeldgaard, who is also head of the integration department in the city government.     

Some, including Søren Pind (Deputy Mayor for Building and Construction) of the Liberal Party, thinks the choice was politically motivated.  “I am disappointed that the mayor purposely used the day to promote the political aims of his party,” Mayor Pind said in a recent interview.  According to him, Mayor Mikkelsen wanted to use this  occasion to exclude the right wing parties from welcoming new Danes and from taking a politically popular stand.  That is why Mayor Mikkelsen chose Constitution Day: he knew that all the right wing politicians would be engaged in other more traditional celebrations on that day and would thus be unable to attend the party for the new Danes.  For example, Mayor Pind himself was giving speeches at two other ceremonies on that day.  Furthermore, Mayor Pind suspects that Mayor Mikkelsen had the next election in mind when he conceived of the idea for the party.

Mayor Mikkelsen, however, denied all these charges in a phone interview, and he refused to regard Constitution Day as the property of any political party.  “The Constitution isn’t a right wing phenomenon,” he said.  “Constitution Day is for everybody.”  He reaffirmed that he chose that day because of its symbolism: “The most important message from having it on Constitution Day is that integration into Danish society is about democracy and tolerance... and we have one of the freest constitutions.  Therefore Constitution Day is the right time!” 

If the time of the welcome party was full of symbolism, the party itself was even more so.  First of all, it took place in the old and majestic Town Hall.  As the new Danes passed the enormous wooden double-door, they could pick up copies of a simplified version of the Danish constitution (the language of the original text is archaic and incomprehensible at places).  After a brief speech by Mayor Mikkelsen, the new citizens proceeded to enjoy the famous Town Hall pancakes.  These pancakes were anything but ordinary.  They are served only to those who have brought honour to Denmark or the city of Copenhagen.  For example, when the Danish soccer team won the European Cup in 1992, the players were invited to the Town Hall for the pancakes.  The decision to serve them to the new Danes came directly from Mayor Mikkelsen as far back as the fall of 2002.  “Even though I am prepared to mix, there has to be Town Hall pancakes,” he said in an interview back then.  

There was, however, an important change in the traditional ingredients: there was no longer any liquor in the cream of the pancakes.  This was done out of consideration for the new citizens, many of whom were Muslims, but there was also a beer stand for those who chose to drink.  Verna Kryger and Per Krogh, the mayor’s secretaries who planned the party, explained, “We wanted to keep the traditional gesture while making sure that there was something for everyone”.  So, they made drinking an individual choice.   

Despite this minor change, Mayor Mikkelsen adhered to a more important part of the tradition: he did not reveal the secret recipe for the Town Hall pancake.  What he did reveal on that occasion, however, was his recipe for successful integration into the Danish society.  In his speech to the new citizens, he said, “With the citizenship follows the duty to get into Danish habits and culture. But also the duty to enrich Denmark with the history and traditions you bring here.”

Indeed, the music on that occasion seemed to be carefully planned to underscore the Mayor’s message.  In addition to the Danish national anthem and some traditional folk songs, there was more exotic music from Oriental Mood, a Danish band that specializes in Middle Eastern music.  This mixture was a conscious choice from the very beginning.  Back in 2002, Mayor Mikkelsen had already decided that the party should not suffocate the new citizens with flags and national anthems.

Like the music on that occasion, the awarding of the Integration Prize was another embodiment of Mayor Mikkelsen’s message.  The prize was split among three organizations that have helped ethnic minorities integrate into Danish society and culture without losing their own identities.  For example, one of the winners was Iman Nørrebro, a scout organization that focuses on ethnic minorities.  In the citation, it was credited with showing “that integration goes both ways.”  Mayor Kjeldgaard, was particularly fond of this group.  “It takes the best from our traditional scout movement, and mix it with the cultures of the ethnic minorities,´´ he said.   

Beside the fact that it was the first event of this kind in Danish history, the welcome party for the new Danes was significant for another reason.  During the election of 2001, the most right wing government since 1945 came to power.  This is because the survival of the current coalition depends on the political support of the Danish Folk Party.  This extreme right wing party has twenty-two seats out of the one hundred and seventy-nine seats of the Danish parliament (the third largest representation).  

Under the leadership of the charismatic and eloquent Pia Kjærsgaard, this party has directed much of its harsh rhetorics against immigrants and refugees, blaming them for many of Denmark’s problems.  It has sought to toughen the standards under which refugees could seek asylum.  Its stand toward immigrants already in Denmark is equally hostile.  It wants the government to push them haarder into the labour market and assimilate into Danish culture.  The Folk Party wants to use immigrants to help solve the pension crisis that confronts many Western countries.  Yet, it is afraid that they may dilute what it considers to be “Danish culture.”  It has even voiced the fear that Muslims will take over Denmark and impose Muslim laws. 

The timing of Mayor Mikkelsen’s (who belongs to the Social Democratic Party) welcome party for the new citizens was thus significant in the current political context.  He wanted to use this opportunity to send a message both to the government and to the immigrants.  On one hand, Mayor Mikkelsen wanted to remind the Folk Party that its definition of integration as participation in the labour market was too narrow and to stress the importance of social integration.  In an interview after June 5th, he said, “We’re opening the house of the city on our almost national day.…  We respect that they [the immigrants] are coming here, and that they can enrich us.  Not only in the labour market, but socially, culturally....  Integration is not about conformity, but about pluralism. About respect of each other independent of where you’re from.”  He also dismissed the Folk Party´s fear as unfounded paranoia: “There’s no danger of Muslims taking over Denmark...  like a reverse crusade.  The Danish culture has proven strong enough during the past centuries.  It can easily handle this....  There’s too much Pia Kjærsgaard in our debate.” 

Mayor Kjeldgaard agrees with Mayor Mikkelsen’s view on integration. Despite the fact that “a job is important in order to give people an identity in the Danish society,” he said, “the government is naive if it thinks that integration into the labour market is sufficient.” 

On the other hand, Mayor Mikkelsen also wanted to reassure the immigrants that the could and should preserve their own cultures while adapting to Danish society.  In his speech to the new Danes on June 5th, he said that integration is “about using our differences to develop and enrich our society and city.  And it’s about the individual’s right to be different – but also guard the norms and values that are deeply rooted in our society....  My vision for Copenhagen is to have a lively, pulsating, and diverse city.”  In a later interview, he restated his view that Danish society is open and tolerant.  “Denmark is open; Copenhagen is open,” he stressed.  Mayor Kjeldgaard agreed with Mayor Mikkelsen on the importance of emphasizing the diversity and tolerance of Copenhagen, “The reason for having events like this is to mark that Copenhagen is multi-ethnic.  Nearly one out of five Danes has immigrant background.  It is important to mark that in Copenhagen, there is equality for all ethnic groups.” 

Did the welcome party achieve its goals?  It is hard to tell with regard to the government and the Danish Folk Party, because so far neither has issued any statement about the event.  The reaction from immigrant communities, however, has been overwhelmingly positive.  Two of the major Danish newspapers, Jyllands Posten and Politiken, have reported very enthusiastic responses from new Danes who attended the event.  

Even POEM, an umbrella organization for ethnic minorities, has changed its opinion about the event.  Before June 5th, the organization has voiced some doubts about the welcome party.  It feared that it was only a publicity stunt from Mayor Mikkelsen and his party.  After the event, however, POEM believes that focusing on its positive effects would be far more constructive, according to Peter Lindblad, spokesperson for POEM. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Welcome to Club Copenhagen!’  This is a gesture from the Mayor, considering that he is a very busy man,” he said.  “One could say it’s a media stunt, but it still has a positive effect on ethnic minorities in Copenhagen.  Not only did the four hundred new Danes who showed up benefit from the event, the event also sends a signal to the rest of the population. There might have too many Danish flags, too much Holger the Dane [a mythical Danish hero]...  but sometimes it’s necessary to keep it superficial in order to attract positive attention.” 

Hikmat Hussein from the Integration Council was glad that the event stressed the importance of social integration.  “The government has totally forgotten about social integration.  They are only thinking about the labour market,” he said.  “But this is not the only way of integrating people.  Integration is about the labour market, education, sports and all social areas.  The main area is the social one: how you live and function in your environment.” 

No one is more pleased with the positive feedback than Mayor Mikkelsen himself.  He has received many letters and phone calls after the event.  Now he is more determined than ever to make the event an annual tradition,  as he promised in his speech on Constitution Day.  Furthermore, the idea is spreading.  “I rode a cab to get here,” Mayor Mikkelsen recounted in a phone interview from Jutland, “and this Turkish driver told me to tell the mayor of Aarhus to have a similar party.”

 

References

 

Interviews 

Pernille Svindt, phone interview, June 16th, 2003. 

Peter Lindblad, Phone interview, June 17th, 2003. 

Bo Asmus Kjeldgaard, phone interview, June 18th, 2003. 

Per Krogh and Verna Kryger, interview, June 18th, 2003. 

Hikmat Hussein, interview, June 19th, 2003. 

Jens Kramer Mikkelsen, phone interview, June 20th, 2003. 

Articles 

Fall Nielsen, Hanne, ‘København krammer nye danskere’, Politikens netavis, October 13th, 2003. 

Plesner, Eva, ’Grundlovsfest for nye danskere’, Jyllands Posten, June 6th, 2003.

Others 

Lord Mayor Jens Kramer Mikkelsen’s welcome speech on June 5th, 2003.    

Hikmat Husseins’s award speech on June 5th, 2003.    

Integration Prize press release on April 11th, 2003. 

 

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