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Atlantic Eye: Surprising pragmatic Danes

By MARC S. ELLENBOGEN, UPI International Columnist   |   May 5, 2008 at 11:11 AM
COPENHAGEN, Denmark, May 5 (UPI) -- Danes are the ultimate pragmatists. They are more reserved than the Swedes, less gregarious than the Norwegians and of lower intensity than the Finns. But behind their coolish manner is a Nordic people as proud and passionate as their history is long.

Located north of Germany, Denmark is almost twice the size of Massachusetts -- not including Greenland. Of a population of some 5.5 million about 1.6 million live in the capital, Copenhagen, making it the largest Nordic city (St. Petersburg, Russia, notwithstanding). The Danes trace their history to the Vikings and were once among the most powerful peoples on the planet, known for their seafaring, fishing and trade. They were also conquerors.

On this occasion, I had been invited by Jens Hald Madsen to take some needed respite from the U.S. campaign trail. Jens was until recently the vice chair of the Danish Parliament's Defense Committee and former foreign policy spokesman for the governing Venstre (conservative) political party. His charming farmhouse sits secluded on a lake -- one with nature and far away from the bustle of society.

Jens has been part of Global Panel initiatives in Berlin, Bratislava, Prague, Rabat, Seoul, Sydney, Warsaw and Washington -- adding that touch of pragmatism needed when one is thinking out of the box. A member of Global Panel's Australasia Board and the chairman for the Global Panel Nordic area, he still sits on the regional governing council of the Lejre region, having been its mayor until recently.

The Lejre municipality is one of the smallest and wealthiest municipalities in Denmark; a recent reform reduced the number of municipalities from 300 to some 120. The Lejre municipality has some 25,550 residents. The mayor is Flemming Jensen and the administrative manager is the very competent Torben Gaarskaar. These local officials bring a pragmatic, intelligent down-to-earth style to their region that is sadly missing in many local communities elsewhere.

I had been invited to sit in on the municipal council's meeting. I was greeted in a very friendly way, albeit with a bit of caution and curiosity. I sat for nearly two hours in the council meeting understanding virtually nothing. I know how to say thank you, "Magne tak." I understand rudimentary things because of my command of German. I was fascinated by the body language of those participating in the discussions. I understood enough to know when budgets were being discussed.

I stepped out for a smoke, and saw a kind gentleman lighting a pipe. "May I have a light," I said. After a few minutes, he asked me what I was doing here. I told him what I do and that I was taking a much-needed break from the U.S. campaign trail. Soon Jens and I were being photographed. The nice man was the local editor of a regional paper. Soon a second journalist joined. So began what would become a local front-page story about the U.S. campaign and our appearance on national Danish TV to talk about the elections and Global Panel. I rarely talk publicly about the elections.

Danes are fascinated with the United States -- especially the U.S. presidential election. I had a brief chat with two members of the municipal council, one of whom, Karen Hojte, was a conservative and former federal member of Parliament. Like any friends, the Danes -- who are very socially minded -- are quite critical of the U.S. social system. I do not agree with all of their points.

And I severely disagree with them on how high taxes should be (I am in favor of a flat tax; the Danes have among the highest taxes worldwide). The Danish system is finding itself strained through immigration and problems with integration. While talking tax cuts is a vote-getter in the United States, it is sure to gain early retirement for any Danish politician who dares broach the issue.

I would also not allow myself to be arrogant toward a people who offer constructive criticism of the United States, whose government has stood by the United States in Iraq, and whose prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is a top candidate for the EU presidency. The Danes are also the people who stood against Nazism and whose king famously said, "If Jewish Danes must wear a yellow Star of David, then so will I." Denmark saved nearly all her Jewish citizens during World War II. One must respect the Danes; they stood up to be counted when many countries showed no courage at all. Being of German heritage, I wish more had acted like them.

In Copenhagen, Jens and I had met with Czech Ambassador Ivan Jancarek and Denmark's Jorgen Bojer. We too discussed the U.S. elections and international affairs. Jancarek is an excellent 40ish diplomat, and Bojer is the former Danish ambassador to the United Nations; his last posting was Prague. Bojer is a man with a brilliant diplomatic career who is now the chairman of the Danish Center for International Studies and Human Rights. Both Jancarek and Bojer will sit on Global Panel's Nordic advisory board.

I like Denmark and the Danes -- I like their pride and independence; I even like that we disagree on plenty of issues -- that is friendship.

Rarely have I been the guest of a people who have treated me with such respect so quickly.

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(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society for International Cooperation. He is a founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)

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