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OPINION: Why do the names of Danish political parties have to be so confusing?

By giving his new centre party the same name as the right-wing party in neighbouring Sweden, Denmark's former PM is following the age-old local tradition of maddeningly confusing party names.

OPINION: Why do the names of Danish political parties have to be so confusing?
Former Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen speaks to press in May 2021. Photo: Nils Meilvang/Ritzau Scanpix

Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Denmark’s former prime minister, on Saturday announced that his new centrist party would be called Moderaterne, meaning “The Moderates”, meaning that if he has any success, we’ll forever be having to distinguish it from the Swedish right-wing party of the same name.  

But it should perhaps come as no surprise that Rasmussen, who long led Denmark’s Venstre party, should give his party a name  that will generate misunderstandings. 

Venstre, which literally means “Left” and calls itself “The Liberal Party” in English, is neither left-wing nor liberal.

Indeed, under Rasmussen it was arguably the most illiberal, right-wing government in Danish history, passing laws to strip refugees of their jewellery, ban the burqa, and hold foreign criminals on a tiny prison island. 

The reason for Venstre‘s confusing name is historical. It was originally founded in 1870 as a union of groups and smaller parties opposing the then dominant conservative party Højre, the “Right party”. Det Forenede Venstre, or “The United Left” was largely dominated by agrarian groups and did not start evolving from being a traditional farmer’s party until well into the 1960s. 

Venstre isn’t even the the Danish party with the most confusing name.

Rather than being the rabid Marxist-Leninist outfit you might expect, Radikale Venstre, meaning literally “the Radical Left”, is the most pragmatic party in Danish politics, a centrist party willing to work with either the Liberals or the Social Democrats to pursue its sensible reform goals. 

The came about as a group which split from Venstre in 1905 over differences in military spending. At least its English name, the “Social Liberal Party”, largely reflects what it’s about. 

The names of the other parliamentary parties make more sense, Det Konservative Folkeparti, or “The Conservative party”, really is conservative, the Enhedslisten, literally “The Unity List” but calling itself the “Red-Green Alliance” is both far-left and environmentalist, “Liberal Alliance” is libertarian, and “Nye Borgerlige”, which calls itself The New Right, is arguably the ideological heir of the global New Right movement (albeit with a far-Right position on immigration). 

What about the Social Democrats? Some would argue they currently undergoing the same sort of shift across the political centre that Denmark’s Liberals underwent in the 1980s, when Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, the father of the party’s current leader, adopted a near-Thatcherite line, calling for a smaller public sector, greater harnessing of the market, and privatisation. 

It’s certainly hard to square the current party, which is tightening immigrant laws beyond anything the Liberals dared to do, with the Social Democrats as they were under the leadership of Poul Nyrup Rasmussen from 1993 to 2001. 

As for Rasmussen’s Moderates, it’s hard to know exactly how they will be “moderate”. 

The Swedish party adopted the name in 1969 when as the stuffy Högerpartiet, or “Right Party”, it was struggling to make any inroads against the then all-dominant Social Democrats. 

The Social Democrats are now fairly dominant in Denmark too, but so far, Rasmussen has been vague on policy, saying in his speech on Denmark’s Constitution Day on Saturday, that the party will attempt to unite Danes from different backgrounds and political viewpoints.

“Some prefer mackerel, and others prefer salmon. Some have long Danish pedigrees, others have only recently chosen to live in Denmark,” he said. 

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This is Russia’s war, but we Europeans need to learn fast from our mistakes

For those of us living in Europe now, this is a scary and dangerous time, writes The Local's James Savage. The threat from Russia leaves European leaders with no easy choices, but peace and democracy in Europe depend on what they do next.

This is Russia’s war, but we Europeans need to learn fast from our mistakes

The Russian army is invading Ukraine, putting an official stamp on a conflict that its President Vladimir Putin started when unmarked troops entered Crimea and Donbas in 2014. The consequences for Europe are potentially devastating.

In a bizarre and sinister speech televised this week, Putin denied Ukraine was ever a real country, falsely claiming it as “historically Russian land” that had been stolen from the Russian empire. Meanwhile, the enormous Russian military buildup in Belarus seems to have snuffed out any hope of real Belorussian independence for the foreseeable future. 

These are not faraway countries about which we know little. For Germans, Scandinavians and Austrians, these are our near-neighbours. Ukraine is part of the wider European community, many of us have friends there. Their previously comfortable, normal lives are now threatened by Putin’s self-indulgent fantasies about Russia’s position in the world.

From my vantage point in Sweden, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia can often feel like another world, but as the crow flies, the naval port of Karlskrona in southern Sweden is closer to Belarus than to Sundsvall in central Sweden. The highly-militarised Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is closer still.

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Ukraine and Sweden have deep historic and cultural ties; there have even been small Swedish-speaking communities in Ukraine since the 18th century. For Germany, Poland, Austria and other central European countries, bonds across borders broken by the Cold War have become strong since the collapse of communism.

Nobody knows what Putin will do next if he successfully occupies Ukraine, but he has been opining constantly about the ‘geopolitical catastrophe’ of the collapse of the Soviet empire. This is bad news for three former Soviet republics, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, once subjugated by Moscow but now part of the EU and Nato. They are modern, sophisticated countries, which identify far more with the Nordic countries than their former Russian occupiers.

Any attempt by Putin to invade the Baltic states should trigger Nato’s Article 5, meaning an attack on one member is an attack on all. Some military experts warn that if Putin decides to attack these countries, he might first occupy the strategically-placed Swedish island of Gotland, a claim that was illustrated by Russian military exercises in 2013, when according to Nato it simulated a nuclear attack against Sweden.

Russia’s aggression has led to calls for Sweden to join Nato, something that would give the country protection, but would also draw unwelcome attention from Moscow. A poll in January showed support for joining was at 35 percent, higher than support for staying out. But many Swedes, especially among the ruling Social Democrats, have long opposed Nato membership, partly out of a strategic calculation that it would put Sweden at greater risk, partly out of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, and partly because they have talked themselves into a belief that someone would always come to their aid if attacked. So far, Sweden’s government is affirming that it will stay out of Nato, but Ukraine’s experience might at least lead some Swedes to review their support for that stance.

Calls for joining Nato have also been growing louder in Finland, as alarm grew over Putin’s aggression. This is understandable, given that Putin has also lamented Russia’s pre-Soviet territorial losses, which could be read to include Finland, which became independent in 1917.

What is happening now has been predicted by some experts for years. Russia spent most of the past decade slicing off bits of neighbouring countries, in Moldova, in Georgia and in Ukraine. It was never inconceivable that he would go further. But the west, after imposing some mild sanctions, mostly turned away and hoped that Putin would stop there, despite continued hostile Russian military exercises and bellicose rhetoric from the president. 

Former politicians including former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and disgraced former French Prime Minister François Fillon, took Putin’s rouble and became his mouthpieces in the west. Even today, Fillon was blaming Nato expansion for Russia’s aggression. Germany naïvely let itself become dependent on Russian gas. Britain let dirty Russian money pour into London, its political parties and its tax-haven colonies around the world, even as Russian agents murdered British citizens on British soil. We all let Russian propaganda channels pollute our airwaves. As recently as yesterday, Britain’s Guardian was embedding tweets, uncommented, from Russian propaganda outlet Ruptly. The tweet itself was innocuous, but the source was anything but.

Russia also got away with direct interference in democratic processes in elections in France, the US and many other places, and there are well-founded reasons to believe it also interfered with the Brexit referendum in the UK. People who raised the alarm were dismissed as paranoid or Russophobic. 

For those of us living in Europe now, these are scary times. We have no easy choices. But we have tried appeasement, we have let our politics be corrupted by Russian money, we have neglected our defences, and we have been slow to tackle Russian propaganda. We need to tackle all these issues now, as though peace and democracy in Europe depended on it. Because they do. 

James Savage is Publisher of The Local Europe