“We are heading into a European Winter of Discontent,” a senior German business figure predicted when we met last October, “and Merkel’s decision to encourage mass immigration by refugees will be her equivalent of Margaret Thatcher’s decision to enact the poll tax.”
It is January and here we are.
Yesterday, Denmark enacted a law permitting the seizure of asylum seekers’ valuables worth more than about a thousand pounds. As it happens, a similar law has existed for decades in Germany – under the German rules, only 200 Euros and the “goods necessary for exercising a profession or employment” are exempted from seizure. But Germany’s implementation of its law is sporadic, mainly because most refugees arrive with very little money. A similar law exists in Switzerland, but last year the Swiss authorities only collected money from around 100 of its 30,000 asylum seekers.
So taking money from asylum seekers isn’t new and doesn’t raise much money, but it may deter the arrival of some asylum seekers at the expense of trashing a country’s reputation for mercy. So are we allowed to feel sorry for Danish politicians? Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen had called the proposals “the most misunderstood bill in Denmark’s history”. This is now something of an understatement. International reaction to the bill has been ruthless. British newspapers’ customary take on contemporary Denmark – which boils down to social liberalism, Noma, The Killing and sleekly designed interiors – has been replaced overnight by, gulp, allegations of moral equivalence with the Nazis.
Check out the Independent’s cartoon by Dave Brown, with the Little Mermaid bedecked with expropriated jewels and a new version of the famous Ellis Island message: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses… and I’ll lift their wallets, jewels, gold teeth and more.” Then there’s Steve Bell’s excoriating approach in the Guardian. Here is Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen as a Nazi brownshirt and the Danish flag as his Swastika armband. He is handling the non-Bullingdon end of a pig with apparently vile intent. “It’s offensive to compare us to Nazis!” he says.
So let’s be clear. Cartoons comparing the Danes to Nazis actually are offensive. As someone who happens to be German Jewish on one side of his family and Danish Jewish on the other, let me remind Messrs Bell and Brown how this worked: the Nazis took the Jews’ valuables as part of an industrialised process of genocide which ended with them stripped naked and murdered in the showers of Auschwitz. The Danes meanwhile organised the most successful rescue of Jews anywhere – 92 per cent of Danish Jews survived the war, including my entire family. It is true that today the Danes are proposing to take some refugees’ valuables as part of the asylum process. But the showers at the other end are safe and contain hot water paid for by Denmark’s extensive welfare state. Can you spot the difference?
Denmark loves free speech. As it happens, the country also spends a lot of money protecting cartoonists, however offensive. The cost of protecting just one cartoonist – Kurt Westergaard, one of the cartoonists who depicted Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten – was reported to be £2m per year. One can agree or disagree with the new law. But crass suggestions of moral equivalence with the Nazis are deeply unfair.