H.E. Mr Niels Pultz, Danish Ambassador to Ireland
The main focus of my address this evening will be a reflection on two small, but great nations and our historical connections, shared past and common future. While recognizing that a diplomat always should avoid entering into the domestic politics in his or her’s host country, I will also try to avoid another trap contained in a quote which is attributed to Sir Henry Wotton, former British diplomat and poet: “An ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country”.
Denmark and Ireland have many things in common. We are small countries who have had to fight for our survival on the fringes of Europe. We are likeminded in a number of policy areas: as small open economies we both adhere to free trade, we have a strong agricultural base, we are firm and committed supporters of the UN and donors of development aid in order to combat global poverty and climate change, enhance democracy and good governance etc.
But we are also different in various ways – up until 40 years ago we followed different development paths for differing geographical, historic, philosophical and cultural reasons. A common feature of both our societies is the traditionally strong influence of cooperatives and local voluntary work. Local activists (fiery souls, we call them) are crucial for the functioning of our societies and for the survival of many institutions. Let me therefore pay tribute to Joe Mulholland and his colleagues for their huge efforts in keeping this summer school alive and well. I know it is a tough job and let me give just one example: on 22nd June Joe sent me a mail saying that the Taoiseach would be available to deliver his address to the MacGillSchool today. The attached programme to that mail was marked Draft 14!
Let me take this opportunity to congratulate Emily O’Reilly for her nomination as European Ombudsman (Ombudsman, by the way is an old Nordic word, dating back to medieval times). She is following a proud Irish tradition in providing top class people to European top posts, like Pat Cox and Catherine Day, just to mention a few.
Danish-Irish bilateral relations date back a long time in our history. In April next year, there will be celebrations here in Ireland marking the1000 years’ anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf. And I cannot deny that some of my ancestors may have taken part in this famous battle or may have known someone who did. And in my family we normally are to be found on the winning side.
Maybe you will allow me, in this year of celebrations of the Gathering, to quote former President Mary McAleese who during an official visit to Denmark in October 2010 said that: “the Vikings were the first tourists to Ireland and they suffered from a bad press.”
Indeed, they did and with some justification. They were violent and they probably were proud of being so. However, a new exhibition of the Viking age currently on display in the DanishNationalMuseum in Copenhagen also demonstrates many other and more positive features of their society. For instance they were good organizers and craftsmen. Their ships were second to none in those days and in my view still some of the most beautiful ever built.
In the most recent history of our two nations, membership of the EU or EEC plays a dominant role. We started in the same class at the same time, so to speak. And after 40 years we have both benefitted a lot. For most Danes it was probably a marriage of convenience rather than of love. But it gave us the golden opportunity to overcome a problem which had faced us since the 1950’s, namely that our two main export markets, Germany and the UK, up till then, were in two different trading blocks.
Many of my fellowmen will agree with professor John O’Hagan, Trinity College, who in a recent paper on “Shared Economic Sovereignty” argued that “there is little doubt that by entering into international agreements/treaties the state potentially enhances, not diminishes, its freedom of action in pursuit of the sovereign good…..For a small country like Ireland very often international treaties can greatly enhance the state’s freedom of action, especially vis-à-vis the larger economic powers”. It has been put very nicely by one of your former secretary-generals of the DFA: that decisions being taken in accordance with Treaty-based rules offer small member states the possibility to “increase their sovereignty in a shared way”.
Both Denmark and Ireland have had the pleasure and honour to chair the Council of Ministers of the European Union seven times and have done so successfully. We have proven that small countries very often run the most efficient and productive Presidencies because, having no hidden, national agendas, we are honest brokers. May I congratulate the Taoiseach, the entire government and whole team of talented, hardworking officials with the successful outcome of the Irish Presidency in the first semester of this year.
We Danes and Irish also share the same kind of humour. We laugh at the same jokes and usually get along very well. We share many values but seem to have different approaches and views of the state/nation/ the public sector. This may have something to do with our different geostrategic positions and cultural influences during centuries from the outside. From time to time, Denmark’s position at the northern top of continental Europe at the entrance to the Baltic Sea has placed her in the European power play, whether we liked it or not. The position of Ireland to the west of mainland Europe behind another and larger island has created other external factors which have influenced Irish society.
On Tuesday my friend and former colleague, Bo Lidegaard, will explain much better than I can why we Danes are as we are, how our present political system was built during the last 160 years and how it functions.
Some of you may have some insight into Danish politics from the TV-drama, Borgen. Actually, it has been quite flattering and somewhat surprising to witness the huge interest which “Borgen” has met in Ireland and in many other countries as well.
Why is it so popular? And why Danish politics? Maybe the secret of its success is that although politics is often full of drama it is not so often that TV-drama is about politics.
Could it be because it is about a female Prime Minister? The creator of “Borgen”, Adam Price, has said in an interview that he believes that real-life female politicians and business leaders need to make greater sacrifices than their male counterparts to develop their careers.
We witnessed in “Borgen” that the fictional prime minister was quite successful in her career but her marriage failed and her relationship with her children became difficult.
Interestingly, in October 2011 – about a year after the launch of “Borgen” – we Danes actually got our first real-life female Prime Minister. At a meeting in Dublin prior to the Irish EU-Presidency, the Danish Minister for European Affairs had the opportunity to pay a short visit to DublinCastle. There he was asked by a DublinCastle guide: “Minister, does Borgen provide a true reflection of Danish politics”?
I cannot remember the answer. But maybe the wide interest in “Borgen” was another factor behind a feature on the Nordic countries last February in the British magazine “The Economist” under the heading: “The Nordic countries are probably the best-governed countries in the world”.
For someone who for almost 40 years has followed the writings and opinion of this liberal magazine it was hard to believe such praise of highly taxed, social democratic-inspired countries to the North of Europe.
The Nordic countries do have a lot in common but are also quite different. And I can tell you that Danish domestic political debate does not indicate that the opposition parties see Denmark as a best-run country!
What are the strengths and the weaknesses of this Nordic system? According to the Economist there is broad social trust which means that citizens pay their taxes and play by the rules. Government decisions are widely accepted. The state is popular, not because it’s big but because it works. You can inject market mechanisms in to the welfare state to sharpen its performance in this way, states the Economist!.
But before you all decide to emigrate to the Nordic countries let me give you a few warnings. Everything is not perfect there. According to the Economist public spending as proportion to GDP is probably not sustainable in the longer run since it is followed by high level of taxations that may be too high for job creation in an ever more competitive global economy. And I know that this is a concern of my government. Also most social benefits are paid for by taxation and rest on the principle of social trust which I just mentioned, implying that taxpayers voluntarily pay high taxes to finance benefits to those less fortunate or those in need for various services. If such a system attracts too many who want the benefits but are unable or unwilling to pay their fair share – the system may prove unsustainable.
So any political, social and economic system is challenged nowadays. And what works well in one society may not function in another. But we can get inspiration from others and see if we can adapt their solutions to suit our circumstances. A lot of the stuff within the EU-system is actually about that – sharing best practices with our friends and fellow member states.
What can we Danes learn from Ireland? Well a lot but let me just mention two things:
1. What I will call “the Irishness”. It is really remarkable that 80 million people around the world are proud of their Irish roots and heritage. Irish music and dance have many more supporters, fans and followers. It made a huge impression on many Danes at the European Championship in football last year to watch and listen to the level of support of Irish fans for their team, singing “The Fields of Athenry” when your team was playing the later champions, Spain.
2. Your capability of attracting foreign direct investment at such high level has not gone unnoticed in Danish government circles. We are very impressed by the amount of companies that have set up their base in Ireland and the number of jobs they have created.
To conclude, I started with a quote about diplomats about whom there are many. There are even more about politics and politicians and I have tried to find one about both diplomats and politicians and found one by a Danish social reformer and government minister in the 1930’s: “Nobody understands like a politician or a diplomat the need to be friendly with those he does not like”!