One year ago, the World was face to face with a catastrophe of unbelievable magnitude. More than 200,000 people lost their lives when the tsunami struck Southeast Asia.
In October, Pakistan was ravaged by a terrifying earthquake that cost the lives of more than 70,000 people.Many in this country lost family members or close friends in the tsunami or the earthquake. Our thoughts and our compassion go to all those who so tragically lost some of their loved ones.
For Denmark, 2005 was a good year. Today, we have one of the strongest economies in Europe. The vast majority of Danes have experienced the benefits of this prosperity in one way or the other.
2005 saw the publication of several international reviews that assigned the highest mark to Denmark. One of them declared that Denmark has the World’s best business climate. Another report proclaimed that Denmark operates the World’s best international assistance when considered as a whole.
These reports tell us two important things about Denmark: we have well-ordered finances, and we have the surplus to think of others than merely ourselves.
This applies to our development assistance to poor countries, first and foremost in Africa. But also in other parts of the World.
This applies when Danish emergency relief workers, through rapid and determined response, help alleviate the harmful impact of natural calamities, like the tsunami one year ago, and most recently after the earthquake in Pakistan.
And when Danish soldiers and police officers participate in peacemaking and peacekeeping missions. In Kosovo. In Afghanistan. In Iraq. In Darfur. And in other flashpoints around the World.
The Danes we have sent out perform their assigned tasks with great skill and commitment. We can be proud of their contribution to moving the World in the right direction.
I would like to express my warm thanks to each and every one of you.
Our soldiers in Iraq make a highly commendable effort to help the Iraqis to live in freedom, peace and prosperity.
This is a difficult job, because groups of fanatics attempt to block the road to democracy with terror and threats.
However, the people of Iraq have demonstrated three times that they reject the terrorists. The first time by turning out to vote in large numbers in the election in January. Then in the referendum on the new constitution in October. And now, most recently, by a high level of participation of voters in the parliamentary election in December.
For the first time, the Iraqis make democratic decisions on the future of their own country. This is encouraging.
We must assist the people of Iraq in building a free and democratic Iraq. We must help the new Iraqi Government to assume its own responsibility for the security in Iraq.
The aim is the withdrawal of the international troops from Iraq. This applies also to the Danish soldiers. We will not remain in Iraq one day longer than is necessary.
However, elected politicians, not terrorists, must make this decision.
Here in Denmark we experience growth and prosperity. The employment rate is rising. The unemployment rate is falling. In less than two years, the unemployment rate has been reduced by approximately 35,000. We now have the lowest real unemployment level since 1979.
For a couple of years, there was concern about rising unemployment. Now, there is concern that there will be a shortage of manpower. Let us make a proactive effort to exploit this situation. We now have the opportunity for people who have experienced serious difficulties in finding employment to gain a solid foothold on the labour market.
We have a surplus. On the public sector budgets, and on the balance of payments. The foreign debt is being steadily reduced, and in a couple of years it will have been paid off altogether.
Previously, direct and indirect taxes increased every year. Now we have a tax freeze. And the tax on earned income has been reduced by approximately DKK 10 billion. For a typical family, this has meant an annual gain in excess of DKK 10,000.
And house owners need no longer live in fear that they will see their taxes increase every time the value of their property increases.
So yes, things are going very well in Denmark.
And it is precisely when things are going at their very best that we must make the necessary decisions that are crucial to the future of this country. Because it is in this way that we will be able to sustain the prosperity of the good times. If we make the decisions well in advance, we will be able to achieve considerable impact in the long term by means of carefully considered adjustments. This will benefit not only us, but also the generations to come.
In future, we will have a larger number of elderly people, and we will have fewer people on the labour market.
At the same time we live longer, and this is, of course, a positive thing.
However, this also brings some challenges. Because, at the same time as our life expectancy grows, we spend less time on the labour market.
If this development continues, an increasing number of people will be drawing on public benefits, while there will be fewer and fewer to pay taxes. It goes without saying that this scenario is not sustainable.
For this reason I say: we will have to make a gradual postponement of the point in time at which we normally retire from active employment.
This means that we must take a look at the rules on anticipatory pension and state retirement pension.
Fortunately, we are in a favourable situation. We have no need to introduce hasty interventions forced on us by a crisis. With our current healthy economy, we will be able to implement the necessary changes gradually over an extended number of years. So that the individual will be provided with ample time to make the necessary adjustments to the new situation. Of course we must maintain the possibility for those who are worn down to retire early.
We must protect the security we have today. However, the world around us is changing. Therefore, we must pursue innovation if we are also in the future to remain among the richest and socially most well functioning countries in the World.
Because security in the future requires that we improve our ability to create new knowledge and new ideas. That we become better at translating new ideas into production and jobs. Better at starting new initiatives. Better at providing good education for all young people, and better at updating and innovating our education throughout life, so that we, each of us, become better at adapting to new conditions.
Everyone must be part of this. A good education for all is the most important prerequisite for our ability to maintain a society without large financial and social divides. A society characterised by cohesion.
At the end of February, the Government will introduce its proposals for reform. Reform proposals that involve, among other things, that in the future we will have to stay on the labour market for a few more years and get more immigrants into active employment.
And reforms that make Denmark stronger and better equipped to perform in international competition. Through strong initiatives in the field of research and development. Education for all young people. Adult and supplementary training. An improved environment for entrepreneurs. These are the initiatives that in the future are to improve our ability to generate new jobs. The factors that will provide the foundations for security.
We will invite all the parties of the Folketing to the negotiations. Our aim is a broad political agreement and legislation in 2006.
We must make the necessary decisions now. So that also our children and grandchildren will be able to live in a good, secure and prosperous society.
During the past year, we have witnessed a heated debate about freedom of speech, and limits to freedom of speech. There are some who find that the tone of the debate has become too shrill and unpleasant.
I wish to state this very clearly: I condemn any expression, action or indication that attempts to demonise groups of people on the basis of their religion or ethnic background.
It is the sort of thing that does not belong in a society that is based on respect for the individual human being.
We have a long history of extensive freedom of speech in Denmark. We are to speak freely and present our views to each other in a straightforward manner. However, it must be done in mutual respect and understanding. And in a civilised tone of voice.
And fortunately, the tone of the Danish debate is in general both civilized and fair. There have been a few examples of unacceptably offensive expressions. And as a matter of fact, they have come from more than one party to the debate. We must strongly repudiate those expressions.
However, the few instances of offensive behaviour must not be allowed to overshadow the fact that the debate and the general situation in Denmark is much more quiet and peaceful than in many other countries.
In Denmark, we have a healthy tradition of putting critical questions to all authorities, be they of a political or religious nature. We use humour. We use satire. Our approach to authorities is actually rather relaxed.
And to put it bluntly: it is this unorthodox approach to authorities, it is this urge to question the established order, it is this inclination to subject everything to critical debate that has led to progress in our society.
For it is in this process that new horizons open, new discoveries are made, new ideas see the light of day. While old systems and outdated ideas and views fade and disappear.
That is why freedom of speech is so vital. And freedom of speech is absolute. It is not negotiable.
However, we are all responsible for administering freedom of speech in such a manner that we do not incite to hatred and do not cause fragmentation of the community that is one of Denmark’s strengths.
Danish society is very strong in the sense that usually we are rather good at achieving results through dialogue. And the reason is that in general we treat others with consideration and we have confidence in each other, confidence in the institutions of society, confidence in a set of principles that are fundamental to our society.
We have based our society on respect for the individual person’s life and freedom, freedom of speech, equality between men and women, a distinction between politics and religion. Our point of departure is that as human beings we are free, independent, equal and responsible. We must safeguard these principles.
For they are some of the ties that produce cohesion. That is why we find it easy to cooperate, easy to perform common tasks, and that is why we also find it easier to address new challenges.
Let us stand united to protect a society that allows us freedom to differ. And a society in which there is a strong sense of community based on fundamental values.
A Denmark that has not only strong competitive power, but also a strong sense of cohesion.
Happy New Year!