Overrated: Helle Thorning-Schmidt
The photogenic Danish prime minister epitomises the out-of-touch Brussels elite
Danish politics is turning into Borgen. It’s always possible to find some parallels between real events and television dramas, but the coincidences in this case are becoming uncanny.
The real Denmark, like the imaginary one, is run by a three-party left-of-centre coalition led by a fortysomething mother of two. The real prime minister, like her fantasy counterpart, is dogged by nasty press stories about the state of her marriage. The real one, like the fictionalised version, makes a big deal out of travelling to Greenland (on tour with Ban Ki-moon) — albeit to promote a message on climate change rather than out of concern for the indigenous people. The real one — this is where it gets downright spooky — is now benefiting, as in the drama, from a scandal involving her Liberal opponent buying clothes with his official, rather than personal, credit card.
Helle Thorning-Schmidt is, supposedly, the living, breathing, actual Danish prime minister, though, to be honest, she seems more remote to many Danes than her fictional equivalent, Birgitte Nyborg. Not even the most notorious selfie of all time, of Helle with Barack Obama and David Cameron at Nelson Mandela’s funeral while a furious Michelle Obama looked on, endeared her to Danish voters — though it certainly put her on the global celebrity map.
The closest British equivalent I can think of to Helle is Nick Clegg: another gilded Euro-princeling whose Brussels sophistication crumbled in the face of contact with voters.
Like Clegg, Helle has never properly worked outside politics. Like him, her life was Brussels-centred until she was recalled, at unfeasibly short notice, and put in charge of her national party. Both former MEPs studied at the College of Europe in Bruges in the early Nineties. That postgraduate institution — the place where Margaret Thatcher delivered her great Bruges speech in 1988 — is a training ground for eurocrats, its alumni forming a nexus across European politics, administration and finance. Few places foster such a conscious us-and-them attitude among their students. To attend the College of Europe is to be set above the run of your countrymen. You have transcended, not only nationalism, but nationality itself, becoming part of a continental elite. You can end up feeling something close to pity for the mass of monoglot Europeans.
I’ve spoken there a couple of times, and no other audience is so prone to the europhile smirk. The europhile smirk is something every critic of the EU gets used to in Brussels. As soon as you say anything that challenges the prejudices of your audience, they show how enormously clever they are by catching one another’s eyes and pulling faces. MEPs do it, Commission staff do it, Brussels-based journalists do it — but no one does it quite like the College of Europe.
Several students underline their trans-national identity by marrying someone from another European country and then living together in a third. Both Clegg and Helle did this, the former marrying Miriam González Durántez, daughter of a Spanish politician, the latter the Hon Stephen Kinnock, son of Neil and Glenys. Both couples then spent time living and working in Brussels.
Not, of course, that there is anything wrong with cosmopolitanism. It’s just that the lifestyle of these power-couples, enjoying tax-free incomes, sets them even further apart from the nation-bound masses. They form a large community, reinforcing each other’s prejudices to the point where they become almost incredulous that other points of view exist.
It’s a truism that politics has become professionalised. Where it used to be something that people moved on to after a half-decent career elsewhere, it is now a career. All three British party leaders, as well as a fair chunk of their front benches, are lifelong pols.
But Brussels adds a whole new level of alienation, of remoteness, of smugness. The reason that both Clegg and Helle — “Gucci Helle”, as an MEP colleague nicknamed her — are unpopular in their home countries is that they have difficulty connecting. More than this, they have difficulty hiding their impatience with the chumps who don’t share their enlightened views.
I suspect both would be happier back in Brussels, enjoying better pay and perks than they do as prime minister or deputy prime minister and, of course, no longer having to put up with pesky voters. At the time of writing, no one has formally put the Danish prime minister’s name into the hat for the Commission presidency, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she were a candidate by the time you read these words. Female, centrist, dull and moderate on every issue except the EU (despite everything, she still wants Denmark to join the euro), she ticks all the boxes.
With the prospect of losing the next Danish election, a jump to Brussels would come in very handy. After all, it’s a kind of unwritten rule that European commissioners should not simply be unelected but should ideally — like Neil Kinnock or Chris Patten — have been expressly rejected by their voters. The Kinnocks may be shaking the Brussels money tree for a good while yet.