CREDIT: <a href="">Ville Miettinen</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
CREDIT: Ville Miettinen (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Lovers with Borders

Oct 22, 2008

By Lena Bjornsen

Avi and Line Busk Shetty got married a year ago. Line is from Denmark and Avi from India. The couple lives in Goa where they run a restaurant—not because they haven't considered living in Denmark, but because they can't. In Denmark you can only live with the person you love if that person is European and you are both older than 24.

"I always thought it would be possible to live in Denmark because we were married, but the Danish immigration laws are so strict that it isn't possible," said Line. "These rules have actually expelled me from my own country. I had to choose between Denmark and Avi. I never thought that perfect little Denmark could behave like this."

Line and Avi's story is shared with thousands of Danes and foreigners who have fallen in love. Immigration policy is a sensitive topic in Denmark, where nearly one out of every 10 people doesn't have Danish roots—a proportion that has tripled during the last 25 years.

Originally passed in 2002 by a right-wing government as a way to protect women from being forced into arranged marriages, the "24-year law" is even more controversial now. On July 25, the European Union declared the law illegal in the so-called Metock case, sparking political battles in Denmark and the EU. The ruling of the European Court of Justice states that "a non-Community spouse of a citizen of the Union can move and reside with that citizen in the Union without having previously been lawfully resident in a Member State."

On October 24, the Council of Europe will meet to discuss justice and home affairs, and Denmark is determined to get European immigration policy on the agenda.

The court ruling caused an immediate stir in Denmark, boding well for the Danes who live with their non-European spouses in foreign countries. But it meant serious trouble for the Danish government whose immigration laws were suddenly challenged.

The 24-year law is emblematic of Denmark's strict immigration policy. If a Dane marries a person from a non-EU-member state, the foreign spouse cannot obtain a permanent residence permit if either person is under the age of 24 at the time of their marriage. The law also requires couples of mixed citizenship to document that they have a place to live and that the Danish spouse has a job that can financially support them both.

The nationalistic Danish People's Party supports such strict immigration policy, aligning itself with the right-wing government and providing the parliamentary majority needed to hold office.

Johannes Andersen, professor of political communication at Aalborg University, believes the coming months will prove critical for the Danish government. "The government is experiencing a crisis. They are completely dependent on the Danish People's Party and don't want to commit to the rules of the EU. But they have to," he said.

Andersen adds that the DPP has taken a hit from repudiation of the 24-year law, which they considered one of their biggest successes. At their party congress in September, DPP leader Pia Kjærsgaard said that Denmark should ignore the EU ruling.

Danish law professor Sten Boensing disagrees, citing the conflict with EU membership. "They can instead try to talk to the other member states about changing the rules. Or Denmark could as a last resort pull out of the union," said Boensing.

Denmark has been an EU member since 1972, so pulling out of the Union isn't an appealing option for the governing parties. The government instead signed a deal with the Danish People's Party on September 22. In order to persuade the DPP to accept the EU laws, the government made it even harder to get citizenship and to receive financial aid as an immigrant. The government also promised to discuss the European immigration rules at the Council of Europe's October meeting.

The minister of integration, Birthe Ronn Hornbeck, rushed to Brussels on September 25 but was unsuccessful in persuading her colleagues to put the issue on the agenda. She was supported by Ireland and Austria, countries that are also affected by the court's ruling. Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom also expressed willingness to renegotiate the European Union's residence directive of 2004.

Although such a discussion is unlikely to occur at the October meeting, an evaluation of the effects of the Metock case will be published by the European Commission in December. European Commission Vice-President Jacques Barrot has said that the Danish government shouldn't expect much from that evaluation because free movement is such an important part of European policy.

But given what's at stake, Professor Andersen has no doubt that Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen is willing to go a long way to uphold Denmark's immigration policy.

"If immigration restrictions hadn't been a big issue in Danish politics, the discovery of the contradiction in Danish and European law wouldn't have been a big thing," said Andersen. "The government and the Danish People's Party has made it a central issue in Danish politics."

Lena Bjornsen is a master's student at Aarhus University in Denmark and currently studying at Columbia University in New York.

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