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Good evening – and Happy New Year!
A few moths ago, I spent some time in a relaxed atmosphere with one of my colleagues from Eastern Europe. He told me a heartrending story about his family’s fate under the old Communist dictatorship.
His father had been dismissed from his position as school principal because he refused to become a member of the Communist Party. He himself had been denied admission to the university he wished to attend because it was reserved for members of the Communist Party and their children.
The existence of an entire family was at risk because the father had been politically stigmatised by the rulers.
Imagine, only 15 years ago this was the hard everyday life that families faced in the Communist states behind the Iron Curtain.
The Communists have gone. Some of those who used to be stigmatised are now political leaders of their countries. In four months, the new democracies will become members of the EU. Some of them are already members of NATO – and more will join up later in the year.
We are opening a new chapter in the history of Europe. We are getting an enormous vitamin boost. The new Member States are seething with energy and vitality. They develop new ideas. They believe in freedom. They believe in themselves and, therefore, they believe in the future. We can learn from them, also here in Denmark.
In the days before the turn of the year, many of us refreshed our memories with TV cuts from the year that was drawing to a close. A number of pictures have burnt into my memory. Pictures of cheering Iraqis watching the statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Baghdad. Pictures of Saddam, captured and in the hands of the Americans. And, naturally, the terrifying pictures of death and mutilation caused by war.
Denmark participated in the war against Saddam. It was a difficult decision. It divided the Folketing (Danish Parliament). And it divided the people. Nevertheless, we decided to join the coalition for the liberation of Iraq.
War is always the absolute last resort. Indeed, everything else had been tried for years. I was fully aware that the peace would not be won in one day or a few weeks. Our allies continue to pay a high price in order to get Iraq to function. However, I am confident that the liberation of the Iraqi people was and remains worth all the costs.
That is what I feel when I see the shocking pictures of mass graves in Iraq. When I see the happy Iraqis, who are relieved at the fall of the dictatorship. When I see that the Iraqis now have prospects of becoming masters of their own future. When we can look forward to seeing Saddam be brought to justice very soon so that one of history’s most cruel dictators may be held responsible for his deeds. And when I see that the fall of Saddam has prompted Libya’s dictator, Muammar Gadaffi, to enter into dialogue with the rest of the world.
It is true that the fall of the terror regime has given rise to unrest. However, it has also given rise to hope, a hope of freedom, peace and progress.
We must look forward now and help the Iraqis build a new, modern, free and peaceful Iraq. There are indeed many negative stories from Iraq, but under the turbulent surface there is daily progress for ordinary Iraqis.
Denmark participates actively in the reconstruction of Iraq. Danish soldiers, police officers and relief workers are doing a fine job under difficult and dangerous conditions. I wish to express my sincere gratitude to them and their families.
I also wish to thank the many Danes who participate in peacekeeping in Afghanistan, Kosovo and other flashpoints in the world, as well as the Danes who are currently in Iran to help out after the terrible earthquake.
The world economy was stagnant in 2003. The economic slow down spread also to Denmark, unfortunately.
However, on this first day of the year I dare predict that we shall see the recovery in 2004.
And as from today, we have lowered taxes on income from work. Just take a look at your tax deduction card.
Therefore, I have no doubt that in the forthcoming year most people will have more money to spend. That leads to more activity, more jobs and less unemployment.
Fortunately, we have managed better than many other countries because the competitive power of Danish enterprises is excellent.
Unemployment in Denmark is after all lower than in most other European countries. It is little consolation, however, for the families where a mother or a father has lost a job.
I shall not be content until all those who can work have got a job.
Denmark has fared quite well through the international recession because we have a rock-solid economy. This is due to the course set by changing governments since 1982. We shall keep this course.
Economically, Denmark is well prepared for the future.
We have a solid public finances surplus, and we are reducing our debt.
We have a massive balance of payments surplus.
Price increases are small, which means that the purchasing power of both pay and pensions is improving.
Interest rates are low so investments pay off.
Our overall competitiveness is first rate. We are, actually, among the four best in the world.
All this provides economic security, for the country and for the individual.
However, we must innovate and further develop society all the time. We are facing huge challenges that are far from being clear-cut.
On the one hand, there is the immediate challenge which many families face as they strive to achieve some sort of coherence in their stressful everyday lives. Many feel, with justification, that they are furiously busy. Not least families with children, who must somehow integrate childcare, work, family and leisure activities into a balanced whole.
This presents us with the demand for more flexible working life structures in future. We must have periods during which it is possible to work a little less and put more of our strength into our family and children, and other periods when we can really put our backs into it.
On the other hand, we shall need all hands and all heads in the coming decades, and here there is a need for the extra effort. Far too many remain outside without education and work.
The key to continued growth and welfare is education. And, it must be emphasised, education for everybody.
It is my ambition that we Danes are to be among the very best educated in the world, and that over the next ten years, Denmark will develop into one of the world’s absolute leaders among high technology societies.
Here lies the source of future growth, prosperity and welfare, both for the individual and for the country.
This also requires a society in which everybody makes a contribution to generating our prosperity. This, unfortunately, is not the case today.
Many years’ failed immigration policy has, for instance, created immigrant ghettoes, where the men are unemployed, the women are isolated and families speak only the native languages of their homeland.
Their children grow up without really learning Danish. Some are influenced by hardened criminals. They come to mistake Danish liberal-mindedness for lack of consistency. Danish freedom with a vacuum. Danish equality with indifference. And they view Danish society with contempt.
The formation of ghettoes leads to violence, crime and confrontation. We know this from other countries. Denmark is neither willing nor able to accept this development.
We must put an end to this unfortunate formation of ghettoes. We must insist that immigrant children should learn Danish properly before they enter school. Young, maladjusted immigrants must be taken out of idleness and crime, and off the streets. They must be put to work. They must complete an education. And they must be made to understand and respect the values on which Danish society is built.
My message to them is this: learn from the immigrants who do well in Danish society. They have a job, they provide for themselves and their families. They establish their own business and enterprises. They make their mark in the world of sports. They teach at our universities. They even serve on municipal councils and in the Folketing. Making an effort makes a difference.
Many things in Denmark must be improved. This applies not least to public services. In the course of the past two years we have made improvements in the public sector. The improvements include more funding for hospitals and the possibility for people to choose among several options.
And this is working. Waiting lists have been reduced significantly.
The next step in the innovation of the public sector will be the streamlining of the municipal structure.
This has been largely unchanged since 1970. However, many things have changed over the past three decades.
I believe that we shall be able to achieve better public services if we make simpler and more expedient structures.
In the coming months there will be much debating of systems and structures. What tasks are the municipalities to handle? Should we have counties or regions? And how many of them?
However, let us not forget that it is all about putting people before the system.
The decisive factor is not the number of municipal halls we have. The decisive concern is that we must get proper quality treatment at our hospitals, improved care for the elderly and even better schools.
Denmark is a good society. We have much to offer.
We must cherish and protect what we are proud of, and at the same time be open to new ideas.
Admittedly, we can get annoyed in our daily lives when trains, busses or the metro are delayed, or when we are delayed in traffic on a congested road, or when we think that the taxman takes more than his fair share. It is true that things could be better.
However, compared to most other countries our Danish society is well organised and things function.
We have done away with class barriers, so that we Danes make up a united people, a society built on freedom, liberal-mindedness and community.
And we do well internationally.
Recently, an American researcher once again placed Denmark among the very best in the world concerning progress, social development and conditions of life.
Danish scientists are in some areas among the elite in the world.
Danish films, even computer games, are reaping international recognition.
Danish architects have created works that are internationally known and famous.
Danish sportsmen and women achieve impressive international results.
Indeed, we have much to be proud of.
However, we are not world champions in all fields, and the world certainly does not stand still. We must learn new things constantly. We must be an open and extrovert society. Ready to learn from the world that surrounds us.
At the same time, however, we must be aware of our own abilities and what we ourselves stand for.
A Denmark with a zest for the future.
Happy New Year 2004!