In-depth with the Danish Ambassador
First of all please tell me about yourself and your professional background. How did you become a diplomat, because, as far as I know you are a career diplomat.
Yes, it is totally correct. Actually in Denmark we only have career diplomats, as we do not have politically appointed civil servants nor politically appointed ambassadors. I joined the Foreign Service in 1987, but even before that I had spent three years as a part time student working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So I actually have a career that goes back all the way to 1982. It was always a dream of mine! When I was a child I lived in the United States, I studied abroad, and I thought that I need to work a little bit outside the borders of Denmark and what would be more natural than the Foreign Service, so I joined in the Foreign Service for that reason. I have had a very good career, I think, a very exciting one; I have worked in Copenhagen and abroad as well. My fi rst posting was from 1990 to 1993 at the secretariat at the Embassy in Washington DC, Unites States. There I worked basically with political issues, but also a little bit with economic issues. Those were exciting times because it was jus then when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the Gulf War started. It was also the time when there were uprisings in Central Eastern Europe, in Russia, a war in Yugoslavia, and so on.
So was it an eventful start?
Yes, a very eventful start in the Foreign Service, then I came back to Copenhagen for three years, then from 1996 to 2000 I spent four and a half years at or NATO delegation in Brussels. I worked on different issues, one really relevant for Central Eastern European countries including Hungary was the Partnership for Peace and the Membership Action Plan – actually the enlargement of NATO. So I was there helping -we could say in my little humble way – helping Hungary become the member of NATO. Well this is now twenty-fi ve years ago, isn’t it? Yes, it is quite a long time. After Brussels what was the next station? Then again back to Denmark, for a number of years. First I was appointed as Head of Human Rights, then Head of Nordic Affairs for two years, I was deputy to the Minister for Nordic Affairs; and then for four years I was Head of the Personnel Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after that in 2007 I was appointed to become Denmark’s ambassador to Athens. And from Greece I
came directly to Hungary – almost two years ago. That’s the full CV.
Louis »Satchmo« What a wonderful world. That is unbelievable; it is the evergreen Armstrong: for me.
Thank you! It was really a full introduction. Now let me ask you about the social system in Denmark. How does it work? Why are the mechanisms of Danish economy and society so great? Or are they really great? As most European countries say that Denmark is a role model for them in terms of economy and in social welfare.
Well, we can say that if we start with the social welfare system, or actually we can go even further back and start with the political system. We have a strong parliamentarian tradition. A tradition whic h has led to most of the time – almost always – that what we have is minority governance. It has been only a few times that we actually had a government that had a majority of the votes in the Parliament. So we are very familiar with minority governance, also minority governance composed of a coalition of two, three or four parties. And I think that although it seems a little diffi cult to work with, it is still a very-very strong instrument, because it ensures that we always strive for solutions. In principle consensus based solutions, so these solutions can gather the majority of our Parliament behind them. So we seek for compromises – it means, that when you change a government – although of course it can go from left to right – you will have a lot of common baggage, that are agreed upon both on the left ide of the Parliament and on the right side of the Parliament too. It gives strength in the long run, it ensures that there is continuance, that you don’t need to change back to another system every four years, you know, a whole new line that we had eight years ago. So that is part of the reason why there seems to be stability- at least political stability- which creates societal
It is a very simple concept concept that actually drives creativity
stability and it creates economic stability in general terms. That kind of stability is very important, it is important to the people: they know what they have, they know what they have to do, they know how they have to contribute to society and they also know what society gives them.
Then you also asked about the social welfare system. And there we have a model what we call the Danish model; if you go to Sweden, they call it the Swedish model, but if you go to Norway they probably call it the Norwegian model. It is a model that ensures that you don’t have too many people that fall through the cracks of society. But it is a model that of course takes care of various issues – it takes care of people from birth to death. We have very strong institutions for children when they born, we have a good maternity leave system for parents and you can say all the way through to the end we take care of the elderly; it is a support system. There is also a very strong system of unemployment benefi ts that ensures that nobody falls through the cracks – even if you are unlucky and fi red from work, you will still fi nancially be sound for a while. You can manage to up keep your family and your previous lifestyle, you don’t have to sell everything, leave your home and end up in the streets. And there is a combination of fl exibility for the private sector and for the labour market; this is what we call fl exicurity. It means that in our businesses the employers have a lot of fl exibility in hiring and fi ring employees. It is not very diffi cult to fi re a person in Denmark, actually it is quite easy. But, there is a trade-off here – we have social security, unemployment benefi ts, and we train people what to do when they become unemployed, so very fast you can get them back into the labour market again.
Can we say that lifelong learning is working well in Denmark? For example if someone has to change profession, is there a possibility even for a middle-aged person to learn new skills?
This is not only a possibility, but actually it is an obligation! With the security that you can get from unemployment benefi ts, also comes the obligation to actually take new employment, which comes again as an obligation actually to regroup, retrain and re-educate yourself as necessary.
As time goes by society changes, modern technology takes over; we do not have the typical unskilled workers in large numbers anymore in Denmark. Also through economic development you know, we have a lot of outsourcing – production does not necessary take place in Denmark. Big Danish companies settle for instance here in Hungary to start production. That kind of outsourcing meant that we had to re-train our people. When we started outsourcing some decades ago, this was not supported by the Labour Unions; they were saying that this was absolutely terrible; we were losing jobs in Denmark, etc. As a matter of fact most companies that outsourced were able to employ more people in Denmark than they had previously, because they could outsource what could be done cheaper and better outside the boarders of Denmark. It ensured strength and growth for companies. And they were able to employ new people in the growing research sector. So we have stronger and stronger companies, that are more competitive in the global market and people have different types of jobs. It takes time because it does not happen overnight. But this is the model and this is what we feel has worked all the time and has lot of consensus behind it.
You mentioned the key word of outsourcing, which was working well in the past decades in Denmark. If some production has to be outsourced why do you think Danish companies choose Hungary? Because of the quality or because they need a place where they can produce cheaper?
Well, it is a combination. What I would say is that Danish companies – and this also goes for companies from Germany, Holland, etc., – they found that over the last twenty years Hungary has provided a good basis for them, because a highly-skilled and very professional labour force is available here at a relatively low labour cost, and there is a very good infrastructure in the country. That is very important; it is not enough to have a good production plant if you cannot get your stuff from point A to B. So infrastructure in general is necessary, and of course the openness of the administration and the governments in Hungary – whether they have been one political side or on another one. This openness to foreign companies that come and bring their production here is also very helpful in the decision-making process of these companies. But what is the individual motivating factor for each company? I will leave it up to them to tell you. I can say that in total – and this might be interesting – Danish companies employ around 15 000 Hungarians, so they are here, they will have to be here, but they also create and provide jobs in Hungary, for Hungarians.
In fact a lot of jobs that do not require skills are outsourced to foreigners in Denmark, especially to East-Europeans. Not so long ago the Berlingske (Danish national daily newspaper based in Copenhagen) published an article about the bad situation of East- European workers in Denmark. Wages not paid, pensions embezzled, etc. So East- European workers are often not treated equally there. Or is it just an exceptional problem? Can you tell a bit more about that issue?
Well, I would turn it around and say that no place in the world and no system in the world is perfect. So there will always be cracks in the system. But from the outset the important thing is that within the European Union one of the strongest assets and one of the most important instruments that we have is the single market, as this ensures that Europe remains competitive in the global market. And of course the rights, freedom of movement of goods and people. There are sometimes, let’s say, competitive advantages and disadvantages between European countries. And there are, as you said, stories in the daily news that some people who come from other countries, from Central Eastern European countries for instance abuse the system, they take our workplaces … Well, we have a free press, so they can write whatever they want. But I think the important thing is that as a government and as a state we try to make sure that those who come to Denmark have equal opportunities, also equal rights and equal applications. We have a labour market in Denmark, we have regulations and they have to follow them. Our employers likewise, have to follow those regulations and this sometimes becomes an issue. Any country may have such issues: you have issues on black economy, people who do not register at the tax authorities, etc. I can only say that is not the majority! Most people who come to Denmark come because there is a need; there is a job to be done. And they follow rules and we follow rules and our companies follow rules. The exceptions are the ones that are getting to the media.
By the way media.The media have often been criticized for publishing too much bad news. But not so long ago I have come across an amusing piece of news – a world record was set in Budapest and the Danish Lego was involved. Where you also there?
Yes, I was there. I had to put the last brick on this Lego tower which set a new record in the Guinness Book of world records. It was a Rubik’s Cube and I handed it over to the Mayor of the city in the centre of Budapest and he took the crane all the way up to put it on the top.
So it was the Hungarian Rubik’s Cube which is a world-famous toy!
Exactly, and the interesting thing about the Rubik’s Cube is that it is celebrating its 40th anniversary. But right now, it is coming back. My Greek wife’s son, who is sixteen years old, almost seventeen now plays with it again. I had it as a toy when I was young, a teenager; and now I see him playing with it, putting it together in one minute and seventy seconds or something like that.
So Rubik’s Cube and Lego are similar because both stay in fashion.
Exactly, it is what you call evergreen.
You mentioned you had a Rubik’s Cube when you were a teenager. Were you also playing with Lego in your childhood?
Absolutely! I have a brother who is two years younger than me and we grew up playing with Lego since we were very small. It was our main toy. It is a very simple concept but it is a concept that actually drives creativity much more than a lot of modern technology does today. I’m impressed that it is still such a popular toy today.
About impressions: which well-known politician do you admire the most?
For me one of the most important historical figures was a politician who died last year. I think Nelson Mandela stands out as the one person that I would mention if you asked me to mention just one. He went through so many hardships in his life. As a representative of this people he managed to change the course of history in his own country in a peaceful way through his personal efforts. I think he stands out as my political hero, anyway. And I am proud to have had the chance to meet him, and I think this is the person that I would single out if you would ask me today.
Certainly, he was one of the greatest politicians in our history. However do you have any other idol who is not a politician? For example an actor, a singer, or do you have a favourite melody or song that you are strongly attached to?
Louis “Satchmo”Armstrong: What a wonderful world. That is unbelievable; it is the evergreen for me. And it is one that I always play to myself when I have difficult situations in my life, because in the end of the day when things hurt there must be something good emerging from it so the world will be wonderful again tomorrow.