H. E. Soren Jacobsen: Europe has future only as a Union

The political cohesion between the Member States is the most challenging issue the EU is facing right now

The EU is facing many challenges, and besides the visible ones such as Brexit and migration, maybe the political cohesion within the Union is the most difficult one. Since its establishment, the EU has been a huge success in terms of avoiding conflicts on the continent, in terms of developing an internal market, free trade agreements and job creation, Ambassador of Denmark to Bulgaria says in an interview with Europost.

Your Excellency, the EU is facing a lot of challenges this year. What, according to you, will be the biggest and most dangerous one?

You are right, the EU is facing many challenges, and besides the visible ones such as Brexit and migration, maybe the political cohesion within the Union is the most difficult one. I'm saying this as an economist and as a diplomat who has worked with European matters for many years. The key issue for the EU is to deliver visible results for the public in general. Since its establishment, the EU has been a huge success in terms of avoiding conflicts on the continent, in terms of developing an internal market, free trade agreements and job creation. New problems are emerging, but the EU has already delivered a lot - look at roaming charges, airline tickets, passengers' rights. As far as migration is concerned, the discussion has been going on for a long time and often in the wrong direction. We have been focusing too much on, for example, redistribution of migrants, but not enough on the source of the problem. In the last years, the number of migrants and asylum seekers has gone down, but the EU has to be prepared for a new crisis.

How, according to you, can this issue be solved? Is it possible to find a solution that may be permanent?

The EU has moved a long way, we have already done many things, and we have sought for different solutions. I believe we are on the right path. However, we need to make sure that the EU borders are secured, and that the flows of migrants are stopped. Furthermore, countries should do more with development assistance that may further help mitigate migration waves.

Don't you think that the problem is very difficult to solve because of the different attitudes towards migrants in the West and in the East? While countries like Germany and maybe Denmark need migrants as working force, Bulgaria is still exporting.

I think the migration issue has been a huge challenge for the EU and that there are still different attitudes towards the right solution. But it is important for the EU countries to stick together and try to find solutions together. I do not think you can talk about West and East. Bulgarian authorities have been very clear that rights and obligations have to go together while other countries in the East have been reluctant to take any refugees. We still need to decide on the responsibility of the frontline countries such as Italy, and the others as well.

Few weeks before the scheduled Brexit date, many things about the UK-EU divorce are still unclear. What can we expect in the weeks until the end of March?

I'm a strong supporter of democracy, of asking people what they would like to happen. The UK government chose to hold a referendum. We have to accept the result and the decision taken by the UK citizens. It is a sad situation, we are not happy that the UK is leaving. However, right now the ball is in the UK's corner. PM Theresa May will have to deliver on the deal. She has to find a way, but no-deal Brexit is definitely not a good solution.

Is no-deal Brexit possible?

Yes, it is not only possible, but it is coming closer with every passing day. If it happens, it will be a very big challenge for the EU and even bigger for the UK. In Denmark, we have a lot of interests linked to the issue - fishery, agriculture, etc. Bulgaria, for example, would have a problem with air transport. If no-deal Brexit happens, there will be chaos for many months, maybe even years. We'll need time to adjust. But we hope that an orderly Brexit will be secured at the end.

In three months there will be elections for the European Parliament. While citizens across the continent seem disinterested in them, polls predict big gains for populists. How will this affect the EP seats distribution?

If people choose to vote for populists, it is their right, this is democracy. But there is a big responsibility on the politicians from traditional parties as well. If more populists enter the European Parliament they will be partly setting the agenda of the EU, and this would not be a step in the right direction. In Denmark, more people are poised to vote in May than five years ago, maybe more than 70%. This shows that people are interested in the European Parliament, and in Denmark there are no strong populist parties. But, yes, the more extreme parties we have entering the EP, the more difficult it would be to make good decisions.

In that sense, what would be the role of disinformation, propaganda and fake news during the months before the European elections?

Disinformation is already a key issue. We have seen that it has played a role in Europe, the US and other places as well. I expect it to intensify in the months to come. I also expect a kind of a wave of fake news to happen. And this of course is very bad as it actually changes the course of the European debate. Let's hope that the citizens of the EU would be able to see through it and make the right choice.

What are the foreign forces interested in misinforming Europeans before the elections?

This is a tricky question, but more or less it is obvious who is interested in doing this - a big country east of Europe. We have to be very careful and to take responsibility. Politicians from traditional parties should make everything to get things right.

A raft of popular movements, such as the Yellow Vests in France, is challenging the traditional popular order in Europe. Is this a new 1968 or a 'boiling' revolution?

I don't think it is a revolution. In a democracy, governments have to be ready to be challenged by the people. This is a great thing. People should be able to demonstrate and express their point of view in a peaceful way, without violence. But I think that violent revolutions in Europe and overthrowing of governments are things of the past.

Let's turn again on the migration issue with a focus on Denmark. How is your country tackling it?

In 2015, the migration crisis came as a shock. Migrants and refugees were coming to Denmark from Germany walking on motorways, many wanted to just pass and go to Sweden, some wanted to stay. It was a big challenge. More than 20,000 refugees came to Denmark in 2015; the numbers in 2016 were still high and only in 2017 they went down. The Danish government reacted swiftly and adopted new regulations concerning migration, making it harder to stay in the country without a clear reason. The benefits were lowered, and the government made an effort to inform would-be migrants and smugglers in the Middle East about the changes. We also redirected a lot of our development assistance to migrants' countries of origin and to transit countries as well. We actively participated in the ongoing discussions in the EU and tried to influence the decision-making process. Our PM has stated clearly that we need to focus on borders and transit countries, and not on redistribution of refugees.

Do you have any numbers? How many people who have settled in Denmark during the migration crisis are still there?

Most of those who have come are still in Denmark, there is still war raging in some parts of Syria. The Danish government has made it clear - if one is an asylum seeker and has the right of asylum, he or she is welcome and will be taken care of as long as there is a need of protection. But those who are economic migrants would need to go back to their countries. We have done a lot to try to send these migrants back, but it is very difficult as there are many countries that don't want to get their citizens back.

The numbers are not as important as the problem with integration. How do the newcomers integrate in the Danish society, having in mind that their culture is rather different from the one in Europe?

Integration is a widely discussed issue. The Danish government wants to fulfil its international obligations, but we can of course not help all the poor people around the world. Those who have the right to stay have to make efforts to integrate. In Denmark, we have had some problems with integration. We have had ghettoes where many people of non-Danish origin were living without being able to find a job. Now the process is going in the right direction. When the Danish society gives opportunities, persons on the other side need to seize and use them.

According to Transparency International, Denmark is once again at the top of the list of least corrupt countries. How does it happen?

We are very happy with that. For us, Danes, it is part of normality, as we are brought up with the idea that corruption is illegal, not fair, not right. On the other hand, this is linked to the Danish social model - we have high salaries and pay very high taxes, and these taxes cover a lot. When you are sick - you go to see the doctor free of charge, education is free as well, roads are good, etc. People pay a lot but also receive a lot. This mutual trust between citizens and authorities is the key thing in the whole picture. The budget information in municipalities is open for the public, everybody could ask what the money is paid for.

But how does all this correspond to the Danske Bank money-laundering scandal?

The Danske Bank scandal is a terrible case. But this is a private bank, it is not a bank affiliated with the government. Moreover, the events unfolded not in Denmark, but in Estonia. Now the government and the police are trying to put things in order. And we are certain that those responsible for the case will be punished by the legal system according to their responsibility.

Denmark is among the world's “green power” champions. When is the country planning to become overall carbon-neutral?

According to the government plans, Denmark should be carbon-neutral by 2050. In order to do that, no petrol and diesel cars will be sold in the country after 2030, only electric cars will be allowed. By 2030, petrol and diesel cars will be banned for taxis as well. By 2030, city buses must stop exhausting CO2. Furthermore, Denmark is happily located by the sea and it is very windy. Already in 1973, during the oil crisis, Denmark decided to bet on green energy. In 2017, over 40% of all energy in the country came from windmills. Last year on Christmas Eve, all energy in the country came from green sources. Moreover, Danes love to bicycle, in Copenhagen there are many more bicycles than cars.

And for the final question, let's return to the EU. What, according to you, would be the future of a Europe still internally divided and at the same time pressed between wrangling global forces such as the US, Russia and China?

I believe that there is no alternative to multilateralism. While the US is still on the top but challenged, China emerges as a very strong economic power, and Russia demonstrates its military power. In that sense, Europe might feel threatened. However, as a Union, Europe has a future. In economic terms, the EU has done a lot, many freedoms have been secured. Of course, the EU needs to get stronger, and I truly believe that free trade is one of the key issues for the EU. The trade agreements with Canada and Japan have already been signed, others are underway. The EU will not get anything from isolation and needs to challenge Trump and any signs of anti-multilateralism.

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H.E. Soren Jacobsen is ambassador of Denmark to Bulgaria since 2017. He has been working for the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1997 and has served as Deputy Head of the Danish Embassy in Ankara and in Beijing from 2006 and 2008, respectively. Mr Jacobsen has also served as Deputy Head of European Policy Department / Head of Migration Taskforce in Ministry of Foreign Affairs (from 2014), Head of Political Affairs in the Danish Embassy in Kabul (2013), Head of Section, European Policy Department (2003), etc. He has graduated in economics from the Odense University.

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