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I believe many feel the way I do: New Year is the time of the year when we take stock of the past year. When we think about the time which has passed. When we think about how we can best prepare for the time ahead.
So what does it look like when we take stock of the situation for Denmark?
Well, the feeling I have is one of pride at living in a country where we have good opportunities to pursue our dreams and freedom to shape our lives.
And it is a feeling of pleasure at living in a country where we take care of each other. Where we have excellent kindergartens, safe and caring nursing homes and good education programmes.
Denmark is not a perfect society. But it is a good society.
I myself was born with the opportunities of Danish society within easy reach. From my first years when we lived in a Workers Housing Association flat in Vejle. And when we moved to Græsted, where I attended primary and lower secondary school, and where I became the first in my family to leave school with the upper secondary certificate. Like so many other young people, I seized the opportunities I was offered.
And to all of us who grew up with the welfare society, our affluent and safe and secure Denmark may look like a matter of course. But it isn’t. It is something we have to work for every day. It is something we have to fight for together.
Therefore, in 2011 we face several important decisions.
We must have an election to the Folketing (Danish Parliament). The Constitutional Act of Denmark requires it. And it will be an important election.
But politics must not only be a matter of the next election to the Folketing. Politics must also include the next generation.
That is why I will speak about another important decision here tonight. A decision that is crucial if we want to keep and develop our unique Danish community. For ourselves. For our children. And for our grandchildren.
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The last two years we have fought hard to survive the most serious economic crisis the world has seen since World War II. We have taken decisions that were difficult, but necessary. We see the effects now.
We act responsibly. Together, we are weathering the crisis better than most other countries. Much better than we might have feared.
We can take pleasure in the successful outcome of our effort: progress for Danish companies. Low interest rates for our housing loans. Fewer unemployed people than in other countries, fewer young people without a job. Respect for the Danish economy in the world at large.
It also seems that Danes this year have bought slightly bigger Christmas presents than last year. Optimism is on the increase, it seems. That is very encouraging. We must nurture this optimism. But it must not make us blind to the challenges of tomorrow.
In several European countries, they have not carried through the necessary reforms in time. Therefore, they have had to cut welfare services dramatically, raise taxes and reduce public sector employees’ pay. That is why we see demonstrations and acts of violence in the streets of several big European cities.
In Denmark, we take action in time. We take the necessary decisions. We take joint responsibility.
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And we will need that when looking ahead. Because new challenges are presenting themselves.
Like other countries, Denmark also faces demands for greater economic responsibility after the crisis. It is more important than ever to pursue a sound economic policy.
And like other countries, Denmark faces the challenge of a decreasing number of young people and an increasing number of elderly people. We are many who live longer. And, of course, we take pleasure in that!
However, when we look at the society we wish to see, on the one hand, and our contribution and earnings on the other, it doesn’t add up.
Today, only about 50 per cent of the Danes have a job. And in the future, there will be even fewer. Every time five people retire from the labour market, only four are ready to take over. Quite simply, there are not enough of us to perform the work needed.
Therefore, we stand at a crossroads. We must decide which path we want to take as Danes – as a nation.
If we passively allow the development to continue, we will steadily be pulled in the direction of an unhealthy economy, increasing debt, higher interest rates and job losses. And we will have to cut core welfare services such as hospitals and schools. I do not want that. None of us wants that. On the contrary. We want to make a good health care system even better. We want to give a good primary and lower secondary school a boost to ensure that in the future Danish children will match the best in the world.
There is only one avenue open to us: by means of common sense, a healthy economy and sound public finances we must ensure that we do not spend more money than we earn.
Because it is and will continue to be impossible to finance welfare services with borrowed money.
That is why there must be more of us on the labour market. More to generate growth in our companies. More to make money. And that is why we must prioritise our expenditure with great care. This is the way to create a solid basis for the development of our society. For the benefit of us all.
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The early retirement benefit scheme has a crucial bearing on the two big challenges: we need to handle the public purse with great care. And there must be more of us on the labour market who continue working for more years.
First, the early retirement benefit scheme costs DKK 16 billion every year. That is equal to the expenses for 240,000 primary and lower secondary school pupils or 40,000 nursing home places or more than three new super hospitals. Per year! Every year!
Second, the early retirement benefit scheme implies that people stop working even though they might continue for a few more years. And even though we are much in need of their contribution.
Today, we Danes are 61 years old on average when we leave the labour market. But a 61-year-old is not old in the same way as a generation ago! A 61-year-old is not old at all.
There are some widely-held myths: all early retirement benefit recipients are golf playing chief physicians . All early retirement benefit recipients are worn-out workers.
But these myths are indeed – nothing but myths. They are not true. The fact is that early retirement benefit recipients are practically just like the rest of us. They are nurses, craftsmen, upper secondary school teachers and unskilled workers. And the vast majority of those who have taken early retirement benefit are neither more nor less affected by illness than people of the same age on the labour market.
My message tonight is: we need the nurse, the craftsman, the upper secondary school teacher and the unskilled worker. We need everybody to continue the good work for a few more years. We have to demand more from each other.
The Government therefore proposes that we gradually abolish the early retirement benefit scheme. Our goal is that more than 50 per cent of the Danes are employed.
For all of you below the age of 45, we propose that the early retirement benefit scheme should be abolished altogether.
For the rest of you, we will change the early retirement benefit scheme so that the changes will have the strongest effect for the youngest of you and the least effect for the oldest of you.
But for all of you who are close to taking early retirement benefit, we will not change anything at all. You can take early retirement benefit as has been the case so far.
Naturally, there are also people who take early retirement benefit because, quite simply, they are worn out. We must not leave them in the lurch. We will not leave them in the lurch.
And let me make it quite clear: naturally, our proposal will not affect the Danes who have already taken early retirement benefit.
This is the overall framework for the proposed reform of the early retirement benefit scheme which the Government will submit to the Folketing later in January.
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We must work more years. That is the necessary policy.
It is not solidarity with the weakest in society to pay those in good health for not working.
It is not solidarity with those who are ill to pay the health care personnel for staying at home.
It is not solidarity with the person who makes an extra effort to pay his or her colleague for not doing so.
Solidarity means that we all pull together in an effort to create new growth and dynamism in Denmark.
Our livelihood depends on everybody pulling together. On companies making good money for this country. On craftsmen building our houses. On researchers presenting new ideas. We need a solid basis for developing our society, our companies and our welfare services all the time.
This is a healthy economic policy. This is common sense. This is true solidarity.
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We need all Danes. We also need you who have come to Denmark from other countries.
Denmark is an open society – in a wise manner.
It means that we make demands on people who want to come to Denmark. When people come here, they must contribute to the community. It fosters integration and, I suppose, it is basically common sense.
Therefore we have opened the door to foreigners who want to work. Therefore we have opened the door to clever young people from abroad who see Denmark as a study destination. Ten years ago, about 12,000 foreigners came to Denmark to work and study. Now, about 45,000 come every year. It is almost four times as many.
Our community is based on values we have fought for throughout generations: responsibility for the common good. Freedom of diversity. Equal opportunities for women and men.
These are not values that any political party has a monopoly on. They are our shared values. They are Danish values.
And these values are not negotiable. When people decide to live in Denmark, the reason must be that they want to be part of this community. We have room for everybody who can and wants to.
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In the past year, we have seen terrible examples of extremist forces wanting to destroy our Danish values and threaten our society with terrorism. Most recently, we saw it only three days ago when the Danish Security and Intelligence Service through targeted action - and in close cooperation with the Swedish security authorities - succeeded in preventing a terrorist attack in Copenhagen.
Due to effective Danish anti-terrorist legislation, due to effective Danish intelligence services in close international cooperation – and especially due to dedicated efforts on the part of the women and men who have made our shared security their professional vocation, the terrorists have not been able to perform their evil deeds so far. Unfortunately, however, I cannot issue a guarantee that it will never happen. Because terrorist attacks can occur without warning.
But let me make one thing absolutely clear. The terrorist threat must not change our way of life. We Danes will not compromise on our open society. On democracy. On freedom of expression. These are values that are firmly rooted in every Danish citizen. And they are values we must stand guard over.
Therefore, we need to continue fighting the terrorism that threatens both our security and that of other countries. As we do in Afghanistan.
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The new year will mark a turning point in Afghanistan.
I can say here tonight that already this year Denmark will change the composition of our engagement in Afghanistan.
Together with our allies and together with the Afghan Government, Denmark has decided that this year – 2011 – will be the year in which the Afghans begin to assume responsibility. Responsibility for their own country’s security and future.
Our task will then be to train and support the Afghans to enable them to assume full responsibility by the end of 2014.
We will gradually begin to withdraw combat troops. Instead, we will send trainers to Afghanistan who can train and support the Afghans and enable them to take care of their own security. I hope there will be broad support for this in the Folketing.
The gradual transition from combat to training and support will continue up to 2014. Within that period, we will also scale down the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan. However, the question of how many must stay and how many we can bring home will naturally depend on how the security situation develops on the ground.
Afghanistan must not become a safe haven for terrorism once again. Our own security is at stake. Therefore, Denmark must continue to be present in Afghanistan, together with our international partners. But after 2014, the Danish contribution will not include combat troops.
Unfortunately, the changes to take place over the years ahead will not mean that our effort in Afghanistan will become less risky. We will continue to depend on the readiness of young men and women to make the bravest decision of their lives. To fight for Denmark’s security. To light a beacon of hope for the Afghan population that has lived in instability and poverty for a very long time.
Danish soldiers have lost their lives in Afghanistan or have come home with scars on body and soul. You are in my thoughts. Those who are close and dear to you are in my thoughts.
And tonight, I wish to convey my special greetings to the Danish soldiers in Afghanistan. You are making a great effort. You make us proud.
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Denmark is not a perfect society. But it is a good society – one of the best anywhere. We are in a new era with new challenges, but we can overcome them. Based on common sense and responsible behaviour. Together we must fight for all that we hold dear. Both in the world at large and here in Denmark.
Happy New Year!