2013: Year in Review
A month-by-month look at the biggest stories of 2013
For many people outside our small borders, Denmark is either that country where people speak Dutch, the home of that woman who took a ‘selfie’ with Obama, or that place that is constantly named some variation of ‘the happiest place on Earth’ in study after study.
But for those of us within Denmark, that ‘happiest’ tag doesn’t always ring true. Yes, the work-life balance here is top notch and the free healthcare and guaranteed daycare go a long way towards eliminating some of life’s stresses, but whether Danes are truly ‘happy’ or merely benefit from having relatively low expectations remains up for debate.
Spurred on by the dark and depressing January weather, we launched a three-part series to examine the happiness of the Danes. We may not have come to any definitive conclusions, but true to form the ‘happiest’ titles continued to roll in throughout 2013.
The attempted assassination of Lars Hedegaard made headlines around the world. The vocal critic of Islam was shot at outside his apartment building by an individual posing as a postman. The incident only seemed to reinforce his claims about the threat that Islam poses to the freedom of speech, and it echoed the high profile 2004 assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.
The assassination attempt spurred a debate among Danish intellectuals about whether free speech was under threat in Denmark. Many who condemned the publishing of the Mohammed cartoons have since admitted that no-one should risk losing their life for speaking their mind. There was a significant twist later in the year, however, when an artist was convicted of racism for her statements about Muslim men. Then this was followed by the emergence on the national scene of ‘ghetto poet’ Yahya Hassan, who many said was getting away with his inflammatory anti-Muslim poetry simply because of his Lebanese background. Just as Hedegaard’s assassination attempt remains unsolved ten months later, there is no end in sight for the larger debate.
Copenhagen has two seedy underbellies: one is the red light district on Istedgade (see December), and the other the drug scene in Christiania. While the jury is out on how to tackle prostitution and human trafficking, there is a simple solution to the violent gangs who control Copenhagen’s illicit cannabis trade: legalise it.
This is what Mayor Frank Jensen (S) wants to do, and in March he hosted an international conference to discuss openly with experts how Copenhagen could develop a model for legalisation. It was a fascinating foray into uncharted territory, and while it hasn’t produced any results yet, it was a rare example of brave and forward-thinking policy making.
Finding a solution is tough and there are strong lobby groups who oppose weakening the redundant UN anti-drug laws that criminalise marginally dangerous recreational drugs (as Uruguay is experiencing after becoming the first country to legalise the drug). The war has been lost, and the conference might be the first step towards the city calling a ceasefire.
The children of international couples were all over the Copenhagen Post this year. From the was-he-kidnapped-or-was-he-not saga of Oliver to the bizarre tale of seven-year-old Im Nielsen, who was deported after her stepfather died, the stories just seemed more twisted and sadder by the day. One of our April cover stories took a look at how those kids came to be by focusing on mixed Danish/expat couples and the challenges of raising kids with a foot in different countries and cultures.
Rather than white collar workers, the story looked at couples that met via the ‘Guiness pipeline’: bartenders and musicians at the nation’s plethora of expat pubs who meet Danes, fall in love, set up housekeeping and have kids.
In April we also reported that dual citizenship was finally likely to pass in parliament. Here at the year’s end, we are all still waiting.
The four-week teacher lockout ended in late April after the government stepped in and presented a bill forcing teachers to accept new working conditions.
The teachers had been locked out following their union’s decision to not sign a new collective bargaining agreement with the local government association, KL.
At the heart of the disagreement was KL’s insistence on abolishing the 25-hour limit on how much teachers can teach each week. Teachers argued that the limit guaranteed them time to prepare their lessons, while KL wanted to follow the advice of the government’s modernisation council, Moderniseringsstyrelsen, and give more responsibility to school leaders in deciding how to divide a teacher’s working hours.
Despite the lockout’s end, the battle over the government’s proposed school reforms continued, and concerned parents and educators alike worried that the children who missed a month’s schooling would never really be able to make up for the time lost.
Denmark may have found itself tied with New Zealand as the least corrupt country in the world in this year’s Corruption Perceptions Index from Transparency International, but the accolade rung a bit hollow in light of the government’s passing of a new freedom of information act (offentlighedslov) in June.
The law, which put a limit on which governmental documents the public and media can obtain, was widely lambasted for putting policy making behind closed doors. The public and the press have been left in the dark when it comes to looking into the background of certain governmental decisions, and that seems especially problematic in a year in which scandal – from ‘Luxury Lars’ to the departure of two ministers who gave incorrect information to parliament – seemed rampant.
But what was most vexing to offentlighedslov’s many detractors was the fact that not one minister or MP was able to describe a single instance in which the current law negatively influenced the transpirations of government.
Opposition parties and EU critics alike were scrambling to the defence of the Danish welfare system after the European Commission ruled that all EU citizens should be entitled to the quarterly child support benefit (børnecheck) as soon as they are legally registered in the country. The fear is that so-called ‘welfare tourists’ would stream in to Denmark – particularly from eastern Europe – in a bid to cash in.
The government anticipated that extending the child support benefit to all EU residents would also almost double the cost that the government shells out for the benefit, from 17 million to 32 million kroner a year.
It did not help quell the fears when another EU ruling meant that Denmark may be forced to offer SU student grants to even more foreign students in the future. The government estimated that it would deprive state coffers of another 200 million kroner.
Does it matter if animals are prayed over before they are killed? This was a major debate this summer that exposed a pettiness among a segment of the Danish population towards the religious sensibilities of a minority living among them. Yes, Danes are affected when public institutions stop providing pork because Muslims won’t eat it, but it’s not because Muslims are insidiously trying to undermine Danish cultural norms. Instead it’s a simple economic decision made by administrators who cut costs by providing food that everyone can eat.
The real debate should be about the way the animals we eat are treated. In a story looking at animal welfare, we again learned that it’s the market, not politics, that sets limitations on the food that is on offer. We want more choices, but we rarely want to pay for it.
When we read a report that nonchalantly mentioned that the new mosque in Østerbro would be collaborating with Al-Aqsa TV, alarm bells immediately went off. Wait a minute, we said, isn’t Hamas – a terror organisation according to the EU and the US – behind Al-Aqsa TV, and isn’t that the station that featured a large pink bunny that threatened to “bite and eat” Danes and to kill cartoonist Kurt Westergaard over the Mohammed cartoons?
Between that, the heated debate over meatballs (see August), the racism conviction of artist Firoozeh Bazrafkan and the emergence of Yahya Hassan, Islam’s role in Denmark was once again a topic on everyone’s lips.
Metro construction: It’s the story that just keeps on giving. In October we talked to some neighbours of Metro construction sites, those poor souls that live within earshot of the ongoing and endless noise that comes with greatly expanding the city’s underground subway system.
Depending on who you ask, Metro neighbours are either honest folk who are getting a raw deal or they are a bunch of whiners who need to get over themselves and realise that noise and inconvenience is part of being a city dweller.
“This construction and noise will be here for one tenth of my life,” said Amjad Halim, who lives near a site in Nørrebro. “There is documented evidence that 200-300 people each year die early due to traffic noise, and this is much, much worse than normal traffic noise.”
Evidence continues to mount that noise can make you sick, and the Metro has once again been given permission to work pretty much around the clock, so it is a safe bet that we haven’t heard the end of this story.
In advance of this year’s local elections, we interviewed the leading mayoral candidates from the main political parties, gave a platform to the lesser-known contenders, and published a special supplement to help guide our readers through the system.
While some foreigners are only passing through Denmark, many others have moved here for the long haul and are entitled to cast a ballot in the local election. Our hope was that our extra coverage would encourage people to become more involved in their local community by giving them an excuse to read up on the issues their councils face.
The election results produced some rather radical changes, particularly in Copenhagen, where the far-left party Enhedslisten (EL) took control of the powerful Transport and Environment Administration. EL’s anti-car platform has businesses worried, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the party’s plans play out.
The upper part of Istedgade, Copenhagen’s red light district, got a facelift this year that attempts to transform it into a quiet street where cars drive at 30 km/h and kids can stroll around in peace.
But families were not the only residents being catered to on Istedgade this year. The junkies known to linger in the neighbourhood got their first stationary injection room in August, adjacent to, and run by, the men’s shelter, Mændenes Hjem. What it all means for the red light district’s future is uncertain. Will it evolve into a child-friendly recreational area or will it just provide more space for pushers and prostitutes to go about their business?
As 2014 approaches, maybe next year will reveal if Copenhagen becomes the capital where the seedier side of life is pushed out to make more room for prams and bicycles.