A Blow to Europe’s Far-Right: Denmark Reshapes Its Immigration Policies

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Helle Thorning-Schmidt, opposition leader, listens during a news conference at the International Press Center in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011. (Ulrik Jantzen-Bloomberg-Getty Images)

When the Liberal-Conservative coalition led by Lars Lokke Rasmussen came to power in Denmark in 2001, it relied on support from the right-wing and staunchly anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party (DPP). As a result of that union, Denmark passed some of the strictest immigration and asylum laws in Europe. Among other things, its policies restricted benefits to immigrants, limited their ability to work and required Danes marrying a foreigner to post an $11,600 bond. The number of asylum seekers and relatives of immigrants applying for entry into the country dropped by nearly 70% over nine years, and the DPP moved closer to its goal: a complete end to immigration from non-Western countries.

But Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark’s new prime minister, has plans to change all that. Thorning-Schmidt, who led a left-leaning, three-party alliance to victory on Sep. 15 and formed her government on Oct. 3, has already announced bold policy moves that will dramatically alter the tone of Denmark’s debate on immigration.

The government’s common policy outlines a number of concrete changes. They include automatic citizenship for children born and raised in Denmark, regardless of their parents’ citizenship; equal welfare rights for immigrants and Danes; vast reductions in application fees and cash securities; expanded work benefits for asylum seekers; and the possibility of dual citizenship, which will ease the naturalization process. The coalition also plans to ease family reunification rules, which have seen 800 children denied residency permits since 2005, frequently leading to the separation of children and their parents. (In March, the immigration minister resigned after it emerged 36 stateless Palestinians had been wrongly denied citizenship. The government subsequently contacted 400 Palestinian young people who had not been informed of their rights and entitlement to apply.)

Thorning-Schmidt has also binned the previous government’s plans to erect permanent customs control points along the Danish border. The previous government had, at the behest of the DPP, insisted on the checkpoints to curb crime and reduce illegal immigration. But the European Commission and Germany, Denmark’s neighbor to the south, complained they would violate the continent’s visa-free travel rules. “In cooperation with our neighbours, Denmark will carry out an effective customs control based on a mobile, flexible and intelligence-based effort in keeping with the common rules in effect in the E.U.,” the government’s policy plan says. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who had criticized Denmark’s border plans, praised the about-face. “This is a decision in favour of liberty for European citizens,” he said in a statement.

Denmark’s coalition will abolish the Immigration Ministry—a strong signal that the far-right’s grip on immigration really is over. Its functions and its 300 employees will be divided between the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Justice. That reallocation of responsibility hints that asylum and immigration should be dealt with against a backdrop of justice and not separate from it. Just as symbolic, perhaps, is the appointment of Indian-born Manu Sareen as the head of the Equality Ministry, making him the country’s fist minister of immigrant origin.

Symbolism, of course, will do little to dampen resentment from the moderate and right-wing politicians who oppose the government’s more open approach. Speaking to Denmark’s Berlingske newspaper, Søren Pind, the outgoing immigration minister, suggested that the new policies will unleash a flood of problems. “This is open borders and an open till,” he said. “We will see an increase in people on public assistance who do not come from Denmark. And abolishing the point system will just bring the Anatolian Plateau that much closer. This is certainly not what they promised during the election.”

William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.