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The EU is our present, China our future – so why do we only care about America?
After Barack Obama’s re-election on November 6, Danish newspapers have had to find a new way to fill their pages. In the weeks and months leading up to the US presidential election, Obama and his opponent Mitt Romney regularly graced the covers of newspapers that scrutinised their efforts and popularity in key swing states.
The ubiquitousness of the American election in the Danish media raised some questions. How can the obsessive level of coverage be explained when the papers don’t devote as many column inches to the European Union and China? After all, the EU sets, by some estimates, 80 percent of Denmark’s legislation and China is increasingly encroaching on Danish and European interests, especially after the recent 12 billion kroner investment in an iron mine in Greenland – an autonomous country in the Kingdom of Denmark.
The first answer is that Obama, the overwhelming favourite candidate in Denmark, is a leader that Danes can identify with.
“Danes haven’t lost the enthusiasm for Obama that the rest of the world has,” said Russell Duncan, a professor of history and social studies at the University of Copenhagen. According to Duncan, Danes can empathise with Obama and his policies, which can be seen as an extension of the social democratic tradition with a greater focus on welfare and empathy toward minority groups. He added that the level of election coverage was also due to an understanding of how much of Denmark’s interests are protected by the US on the word stage.
“Danes understand that the world is global and that the United States is involved in protecting EU interests in the South China Sea where Maersk, for example, is very prevalent,” he said.
But while the US is protecting Danish interests, they are no longer without competition in international might. Unlike Europe and the US, which are still gripped by flat-lining growth, China has been travelling the world buying up farmland and mineral resources, such as an iron mine in Greenland.
Danes are aware of this rising power. A poll carried out last week for Politiken newspaper found that 53 percent of Danes think that China will be the world’s leading superpower in ten years, while only 30 percent thought it would be the US. Why then do most newspapers contain little about the mechanisms of China’s power structure or any of the major events in its 88 cities that are the same size or larger than Denmark?
On the day Obama discovered he would be occupying the Oval Office for another four years, Politiken newspaper – which devoted the entirety of the previous day’s usse to the US election – ran an entire issue on China to mark the highly choreographed power transfer at the top of its ruling Communist Party from current president Hu Jintao to his successor, Xi Jinping. But Clemens Stubbe Østergaard, a senior research fellow at Copenhagen’s Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, thinks we should have started paying them more attention a long time ago, especially given that China has deep pockets at a time when the US is strapped for cash.
“Denmark’s economy is dependent on exports, so maintaining our still high standard of living is dependent upon up-to-date knowledge of what is already the second biggest economy in the world, with a middle class the size of the European population,” Østergaard said. “We have been far too complacent.”
Jørgen Delman, a professor of China Studies at the University of Copenhagen, argued that while the US is still a more significant trading partner for Denmark, developing a long-term relationship with China is vital for securing Denmark’s future.
“It sounds idealistic, but right now the most important thing to do is build partnerships with the future China. Danish universities have already started many different collaborations with Chinese researchers on topics and issues that could produce solutions for future problems,” Delman said. “We need to collaborate to ensure it becomes a viable business for both sides. This is important if we want to see them return to Denmark and work with us.”
While China’s enormous wealth and talented researchers may prove useful to Denmark in the future, its lack of parliamentary democracy and civil liberties, as well as China’s widespread censorship, means that Danes are unlikely to ever have as much of an emotional stake in China as they do in the US.
There is, after all, as much squabbling in the US’s two-party system as there is in Denmark’s consensus-orientated coalition system. But in reality, Denmark long ago handed over a large portion of its legislative decision-making to Brussels and the EU.
Yet, decisions made by the European Parliament are rarely reported on. To Morten Messerschmidt, MEP for Dansk Folkeparti, this is problematic.
“I think it’s good that journalists covered the US election because what happens over there influences the whole world,” Messerschmidt said. “I only question why a broadcaster like TV2 News doesn’t give the same level of coverage to the European Parliament. What happens every day in Brussels has much more influence on our lives than the election in the US.”
Professor Marlene Wind, director of the Centre for European Politics at the University of Copenhagen, is also disappointed by the lack of attention given to European politics and argues that the complexity of European decision making is probably to blame.
“Reporting on detailed policy making in the EU can easily become detailed and boring,” Wind said. “A lot of EU policies are difficult to understand.”
The American election, on the other hand, had all the right ingredients for good television.
“It’s a competition that is easy to communicate,” she said. “You have winners and losers and it’s easy to point out who is good and bad. Then there are pretty pictures of families and people crying. It’s perfect television.”
The attention given by the media to the different superpowers, then, ultimately reflects a reality in which entertainment is more important than politics. And as far as Danes are concerned, Obama is good TV, the EU is boring, and China is the future.