Political Kudos

A German love letter to Denmark

The Fehrman Belt Fixed Link: German bureaucracy personified. Source: Femern A/S

It’s been 72 days since the election, and German parties still haven’t been able to agree on a coalition. The political crisis could perhaps be solved with a decision to form a minority government – but that’s just too unstable for the liking of Chancellor Angela Merkel, and many others, who would rather see a snap election.

While Germany has never had a postwar minority government, its northern neighbor Denmark has had 28 of them. In fact, only four times since 1945 has the Kingdom enjoyed majority rule. Yet the lawmaking process has never really become paralyzed, which is what Germany fears the most. That’s because, while Germans and their system are bogged down with bureaucracy, the Danes are out there getting things done in various different sectors and industries.

Case in point: the Fehrman Belt Fixed Link, an ambitious German-Danish tunnel project agreed upon by Berlin and Copenhagen in 2009. Meant to connect the German island of Fehmarn and Danish island of Lolland, it was scheduled for completion by 2020, but now construction isn’t even likely to start until 2021.

Germany’s environmental report on the project was 14,000 pages long, compared to Denmark’s 2,000.

It’s Germany’s fault. Denmark is ready to break ground, having approved the tunnel in 2015, but the German parliament will likely need until the summer of 2018 for a vote. This means the tunnel won’t be operational until at least 2029. Granted, concerns over the tunnel’s impact on tourism and the environment have dogged the project in Germany. Its fancied as a vanity project for neighboring Denmark, with even Deutsche Bahn withdrawing investment due to skepticism about future profitability. Despite this, government agencies in both countries have taken considerably different approaches in communicating with citizens about the project.

“We found that it makes a big difference to get people involved early and take local recommendations for improving the project seriously,” said Betina Lose of Banedanmark, the state-owned railway company planning a direct train line to the link. According to Ms. Lose, Banedanmark spoke to residents who would be affected before the project even became public. The company regularly sets aside around 2-3 percent of investment in each project for public outreach. “It’s a little expensive, but in the end people are also satisfied with the project,” she explained.

On the other side of the border, Germans feared the tunnel would be ecologically wasteful and would mean a slump in tourism on the northern seaside, but Femern, the state-owned company in charge of the tunnel, denies this. But Danish Transport Minister Ole Birk Oleson said that, while both countries are subject to the same European Union laws, the German system is also more prone to bureaucracy. While Germany has already fielded 12,400 official complaints about the project, Denmark received just 36. Another difference: Germany’s environmental report on the project was 14,000 pages long, compared to Denmark’s 2,000.

It also helps to explain why the Danish are so far ahead in the digital realm, an area where Germany is known for painfully lagging behind. Copenhagen launched its e-government platform in 2001 and 10 years later, established its own digitization agency. Today about 90 percent of Danish citizens receive notifications from public authorities via the Digital Post system.

“We had an economic crisis and had to save money in the public budget,” said authority’s former boss, Lars Frelle-Petersen, who now works for the Danish finance ministry. “At the same time, we realized: People’s lives are increasingly happening online. It’s the government that’s still analogue.”

Denmark’s most recent five-year digital strategy spells big changes for schools, and the government has already undertaken major reforms of its universal health care system. It’s pumping more money into larger hospitals, closing smaller clinics, and using digitalization to ensure that patients outside the big cities have even better access to care.

Labor market experts widely see the country’s workforce as another success story. The Danish “Flexicurity” model gives employers more control over hiring and firing workers. At the same time, people who lose their jobs get generous unemployment benefits, as well as access to training and other occupations. The end result is a lower poverty rate and a more mobile labor force.

On the contrary, despite a record-low unemployment rate, German companies are having problems filling vacancies for lack of workers with the right skills and education. Poverty is also on the rise. According to Eurostat, the percentage of those at risk of hardship in Germany was 13.2 percent in 2016, compared to 6.4 percent in Denmark. All the more reason for the southern neighbor to draw inspiration.


A version of this article appeared in WirschaftsWoche, a Handelsblatt sister publication. Amanda Price in New York City adapted this article for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: s.book@vhb.de, max.haerder@wiwo.de and cordula.tutt@wiwo.de.

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