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Reaffirming the Danish-British marriage

Two and a half years into his role, Danish ambassador to the UK Claus Grube reflects on the status of what he calls an old marriage, and how Denmark anno 2016 is ready for a fresh narrative on the international stage.

Interview by Thomas Bech Hansen, Communications Officer at the Danish Embassy in the UK

There is a calm, concentrated atmosphere in Claus Grube’s office, akin to an old-world study or a library – a place where contemplation and grit thrive in each other’s company. The décor is elegant but simple. On the wall hangs a framed cover of Radio Times, with a photo of Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, taken at the height of her Borgen success. Below, on the floor, sits an unopened box of Lego bricks designed to build a mini-version of Tower Bridge.

Piecing together Danish and British parts to build bridges is not a strange undertaking for the Ambassador. Since taking up his post in October 2013, he has spent his time doing exactly that. The 65-year-old diplomat reflects on a period characterised by changing conditions and landmark political events, and looks towards a refocus on how the two nations interact.

Highlight current strengths
Culturally and historically, Denmark and the UK have a very strong connection. But Claus Grube is wary of the two partners sliding into complacency. “We are very close but neither of us seem to make a great deal of that closeness. It is like a seasoned marriage – there are two people in it, they don’t talk about it but they expect the relationship to always be there. But, just like in a marriage, we must not take each other for granted. We must constantly remind ourselves of who we are, collectively and individually.”

At a breakfast briefing for Danish journalists in the Ambassador's residence. Photo: Kåre Gade.

Claus Grube is intent on keeping relations fresh and refraining from platitudes and misconceptions. “We must not succumb to old-fashioned assumptions or repetitions of old themes. For instance, many people still think of Denmark as only an agricultural nation. We are not and have not been for years. We have so much to show, so many ideas to share. We are at the forefront on areas like urban planning and development, new technology and sustainability. We are already showing our current strengths to the world, but we must keep reiterating them and find the right occasions.”

Consolidating the Danish brand
In the same vein, he makes the case for widening the geographical focus to show Denmark as a nation with distinct regional features. While Copenhagen’s popularity and pervasive coolness continues to earn the Danes attention and plaudits, he says there is now a need to recognise progress elsewhere. “Take Aarhus, our second largest city, as an example. Development there is rife, both in terms of business and culture. The city is European Capital of Culture in 2017 and we must seize this opportunity to show not only Aarhus but the whole Central Denmark Region to the outside world.”

Taking a closer look at 2017, London’s Southbank Centre will make the year a celebration of Nordic art and culture. Selected by Nordic ministers for a cultural exchange joint venture, and with ‘play’ as theme, the renowned arts centre plans to feature music, literature, fashion, food, etc. – all brought to London by Nordic artists.
“It is another great opportunity to show what contemporary Denmark is all about. Generally speaking, it is time to consolidate the Danish brand. We have enjoyed great success via all the TV dramas, the whole Nordic Noir movement, gastronomy, crime novels and so on. But to maintain our reputation and make it last longer, we must make it more substantial, expand more on business, politics and tourism as well as culture. Root it in people’s minds, create new points of references. And we must accept that criticism and sometimes being unpopular is also part of it.”

In the ambassador's residence. Photo: Liv Hansen.

It is called seizing the moment. Grube points concretely to the Southbank project, but sees several upcoming opportunities in the UK, which Denmark must be ready to capitalise on.

Good time and right place for export
Over the next ten years, the UK face a renovation of railways, roads, sewage systems, housing and energy supply, and Claus Grube expects Danish companies to be alerted by the fact. “We have a lot of knowledge in Denmark within these areas, so we must be geared towards bidding for upcoming public and private tenders.” Seen from the ambassador’s chair, the British market is one of the best to export to. “Culturally, mentally and in terms of language, it is very close to Denmark. The environment here is liberal and geared towards business, which makes it fairly easy and cost-efficient to find agents or set up a company. Competition is tough and it will take time and money, but it is worth the effort.”

After taking the role as Ambassador, Claus Grube was struck by the changing nature of Danish export. Before, he argues, big Danish exporters like Arla, Danish Crown and Carlsberg would apply their existing organisational structure and value chain on the foreign market. Now, they take a more adaptive approach. “Raw materials are locally sourced local knowhow is consulted for expertise. With this approach, Danish companies gain vital knowledge of the local market and integrate more when they venture into the UK, which can only benefit the company, Denmark and the local economy. Of course, it is the same strategy we like to see when British companies invest in Denmark, creating jobs and adding to our economy, as well as benefiting the mother country.”

It is popularly said that London is the biggest Danish city outside of Denmark. While the exact figures are not known, suffice to say there are thousands living in both the capital and the rest of the country. One demographic close to Claus Grube’s heart is Danish students in the UK, and he believes more should be done to attract them to the UK – something which could aid research, innovation and Danish export in the future. “Take London, Cambridge and Oxford – these cities are home to some of the best education centres in the world. Young Danes should experience studying abroad and gain knowledge from some of the finest research institutions. However, good education is not cheap – in fact, in the UK it can be quite expensive. So we need to make sure that grants are available to Danes wishing to come here and study, for instance through private foundations.”

Big political decisions for the UK
After arriving in London, Claus Grube took his seat overlooking the leafy corner of Cadogan Place and Sloane Street for a packed to-do list, including the Scottish referendum in 2014 and the UK’s EU renegotiation.

“I arrived for what has been a hugely interesting time in British politics, a time which will have a big influence on the UK’s and Denmark’s future,” says Grube. “But it is very important that we don’t interfere with the domestic political debate in the UK. The question about Scotland’s future was an internal matter and it was settled through a proper democratic process. It deserved our respect, as does the EU question now.”

With Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Kristian Jensen. Photo: Kåre Gade.

Having begun his career in the Foreign Service in 1977, and representing Denmark in the EC and later on the EU, Claus Grube is well-versed in European politics. Still, he admits the British take on the EU initially took him by surprise.

“The nature of the debate surprised me. I was aware of the scepticism, but it surprised me just how dominant the sceptical side is compared to the discussion in Denmark,” says Grube, who has endeavored to contribute to the British EU discussion with nuances and facts rather than seeking to sway opinions.

“The outcome of the referendum will be important to Denmark because the UK is such a close partner to us. It is in our interest to help analyzing the consequences of a possible British exit. It is entirely up to the British people to decide if they want to remain or leave the EU but the decision should be as well informed as possible,” says Claus Grube before adding jokingly: “It amazes me that Britain is the only country that has the same sense of humour as the Danes. We can be ironic and sarcastic without getting into trouble. For that reason alone, it would be sad to see Britain leave the EU.”

Asked what could happen in the case of a no to EU-membership, Claus Grube rapidly replies. “We will be very busy advising on the possible fallout to Danish interests. It is however very difficult to predict apart from a long period of uncertainty, because it all depends on the political reactions not only in the UK, but also in the rest of the EU. Maybe we could convince more British companies to relocate to Denmark as a new gateway to the EU?” he adds with a smile.

When it comes to Foreign Policy, Security and Defence, the UK is also an important partner for Denmark. Together, the two countries have fought in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and now in Syria against Isil. “It is important we maintain our close relations at all levels to stay more safe and operative in our combat against international crime and terrorism in the EU, NATO, UN and internationally,” says Grube.

For a moment, Claus Grube pauses and casts a pensive glimpse at the Lego package, showing a completed Tower Bridge in all its Victorian glory paraphrased through colourful bricks. “Apparently it takes 40 hours to complete, “he says. “I have to find the time.”