It’s Helle at the top

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Denmark’s first female prime minister, currently at the helm of the European Union, is profiled by David Haworth

When Helle ThorningSchmidt took office last autumn much was made of “Denmark’s first female premier” – though of the Nordic nations alone, Finland, Norway and Iceland have all previously had women leaders, in the latter case 30 years ago, so the Dane’s arrival was no trail-blazer.

Her narrow victory was of particular interest in Brussels, however, because it happened on the eve of Denmark’s current presidency of the European Union. There was interest in how the cool 45-year-old former MEP of eye-catching elegance would make a difference to a Union lurching from crisis to crisis.

“She has two degrees in political science in her highly expensive handbag” 

Just as Nordic and Dutch royalty are always said to cycle everywhere, this socialist prime minister makes a point of being, well, just a housewife, not shirking any of the usual domestic chores as she runs the country, brings up two young daughters, and acts as figurehead of the EU. She stresses the feminine side of her feminism.

“It’s important in politics to be the person you are,” she says, making no bones about the nickname she has acquired in some Danish circles:“Gucci Helle”.

FORMER MEP

In her case being an ordinary gal seems a bit improbable. She has two degrees in political science – one from Copenhagen, the other from Bruges – in her highly expensive handbag, and rose to prominence almost before anyone noticed she was on her way. No books or even monographs have been authored by her, which makes it hard to pin down the political epiphany which brought her to where she is today.

After a stint at the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions, she was elected to the European Parliament – which may or may not be a path to promotion – becoming the first woman president of the Danish Social Democrats, yet said by one commentator to be “the weakest leader the party has ever had”.

She hasn’t got much form in foreign affairs so one cannot guess how her EU presidency will play out. Thorning-Scmidt scraped her five seat majority in a campaign that relied heavily on Danish domestic matters, mainly bits and pieces about public transport, health checks, school classes, a tax on fatty foods, and so on, but barely dwelling on the fact that Denmark is in one of its worst recessions since 1945. She acknowledged “we’ve got to get a grip on the economy”, but so far, as a premier of a non-eurozone country, has revealed no strategy for doing so.

“We have the opportunity to change Denmark. That opportunity must be seized,” she said on taking the helm. This last was catalogued as a “brainy quote”, although readers may think instead it’s pretty banal. Clever as she may be, the striking phrase (at least in English) is never deployed.

COD WAR

Her EU Presidency mantra is for “a responsible Europe” – dynamic, green and safe – something everyone could live with, in other words, should that upland become sunny before the summer holidays. If parochial Danish politics get rougher for the so-called Red Bloc, she may not even get that far. She’s being mocked at home for not keeping her promises and the largest circulation paper named her “New Year Cod” in a readership poll – a “cod” being someone who is accident prone.

She has exhorted voters to each work an extra twelve minutes per day to give the economy a bit of a lift. It caught the headlines, that’s for sure, but the idea swiftly came to nothing. How could it and the economic effects be measured?

TV FICTION

Thorning-Schmidt has to tolerate comparison to her fictional counterpart in the vivid television series Borgen about a youngish mother who slithers through Denmark’s coalition complexities and unexpectedly becomes the country’s first woman premier. It’s not modelled on Thorning-Schmidt, having being made before her victory, but it was prescient.

One suspects the TV-fiction parallels are irritating when the media quip about life imitating art. Maybe she frets that the drama’s main character is more interesting than what Thorning-Schmidt told The Times is “my reality”. Part of that reality is being the daughter-in-law of former European Commissioner (and a former contender for the British premiership) Neil Kinnock. Her husband, Stephen Kinnock, is a weekend commuter from Switzerland working as a director of the Davos-based World Economic Forum.

“being upstaged by a television programme as well as Angela Merkel must make things hard for the Danish prime minister”

They met as postgraduates while studying at the College of Europe in Bruges and apparently, when in Copenhagen, he pulls his weight domestically just as the hubby in TV’s Borgen does. If needed, the grandparents pile over from the UK to give a hand.

So far Thorning-Schmidt’s impression on Danish politics, and indeed on EU politics, has been rather like a footprint in wet sand; an outline is there but the detail remains vague. To be fair, she hasn’t had much time yet and, as a political idiom the “Nordic model”, is burnished with good intentions though doesn’t make the heart race. It’s not a novelty any more and neither is female leadership of a nation.

Lacking these former advantages, being upstaged by a television programme as well as Angela Merkel must make things hard for the Danish prime minister in the crisis “de nos jours”, but there we are. Now we go to the trailer to see what happens in the next episode. Stay tuned.