No stranger to controversy

Series Title
Series Details 12/10/95, Volume 1, Number 04
Publication Date 12/10/1995
Content Type

Date: 12/10/1995

How many EU politicians can claim to have been nominated for the European Commission despite having twice been sacked from senior posts in domestic politics?

In just nine months in Brussels, Denmark's Ritt Bjerregaard has demonstrated why she is one of the most colourful and controversial figures in Danish politics.

Bjerregaard's approach to the French nuclear tests in the South Pacific has been just as confrontational and outspoken as almost everything she has done in her political life.

While it has not always enamoured her to her political allies, Bjerregaard's style has generated enormous support among the electorate. She has even been marked out by some as a potential future Danish prime minister.

Always immaculately presented, Bjerregaard's glamorous appearance belies a steely determination and a total lack of fear of causing offence.

This was best represented by the furore she created at her European Parliament hearing in January. After a disastrous appearance before the environment committee, she proved unwilling to make her peace with the Parliament after she was quoted out of context as referring to the institution as “not a real parliament”.

Given that she was before the Parliament ostensibly to secure her future employment, this did not seem a particularly wise move. Acquaintances are convinced that her performance was not an impetuous display of intolerance, but a calculated tactic to show the Danish electorate that she was quite prepared to stand up to the Parliament.

Her reputation as a maverick received a further boost when she appeared to meet senior officials in DGXI, the Directorate-General for environment, for the first time, riding on the back of a motorcycle driven by her Chef de Cabinet Laurs Nørlund.

To her many fans, this is a mark of how unaffected Bjerregaard has remained - from what by Danish standards are humble roots - despite her elevation to the highest echelons of European politics.

“She's not the slightest bit snobbish about her position at all, and just acts the way she always has. Once she's your friend, she'll always be there for you,” noted an experienced observer of Danish politics recently.

Few doubt that Bjerregaard will take every opportunity to use her time as a Commissioner to boost her reputation in Denmark. A consummate politician from a country known for its tradition of open government, Bjerregaard makes no great effort to hide the fact that public relations are a very important part of her political agenda.

As one official put it: “People in the cabinet are clear that part of their job is to act as public relations officers for Ritt.”

There was surprise that her choice of advisers did not include an environmental specialist and that she surrounded herself with such a young, inexperienced team. That her cabinet is split 50/50 between men and women also suggests a desire to appeal to the widest possible spectrum of opinion.

Love her or hate her, nobody doubts Bjerregaard's talents. Yet critics suggest that she has failed to adapt her style to work in a college of 20 Commissioners.

French President Jacques Chirac's decision to restart his country's nuclear testing programme offered a chance for Bjerregaard to jump on to centre stage. Her outspoken and forthright approach - while popular with much of the public - has evidently caused the Commission considerable embarrassment.

According to one Commission insider: “She really thinks that she's going to be the hero who stops the French nuclear tests.” Unfortunately for Bjerregaard, there now seems to be little that the Commission can actually do if Paris remains determined to continue with its programme.

Critics also suggest that she still has to adjust her style to the kind of attention to detail needed by a Commissioner as opposed to a government minister or parliamentary chairman of a major political party - positions she held during her career in Denmark.

“She's superb on general policy but has never been interested in details, which is a major problem in the Commission,” according to a seasoned observer.

Although Bjerregaard only has three Council of Ministers meetings behind her as Environment Commissioner, member state officials are still waiting for her to brush up on the crucial details of her dossier.

“She doesn't seem to see her role as having to look at details. Ministers are interested in finding room for agreement and it's not very helpful merely parroting the Commission's positions,” said one official.

Her viewpoint appears to be that environmental concerns should be taken into account in every policy area, rather than being handled in isolation.

She was believed to be unhappy at the limited credit she was given for her role in the agreement reached last month in Geneva to ban exports of hazardous waste from OECD to non-OECD countries under the Basle Convention. Nuclear testing has offered her a high profile issue very early in her five-year term, but one where a clear 'victory' is unlikely.

Bjerregaard's European credentials are impeccable. A former member of the Danish parliament's European Affairs Committee, she was also leader of the country's European Movement and can claim credit for moving the Social Democrats from opponents of the Single European Act to a pro-Maastricht line.

Despite regular controversy and not being afraid to confront potentially explosive issues such as welfare reforms, her popularity in Denmark has never waned. Cynics suggest that the principal reason for her appointment to the Commission was because Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen saw her as the greatest threat to his position.

Her power base within the SDP is based around the “Ritt's coffee club”, a highly-influential but informal group within the party. Although she supported Rasmussen the last time the party leadership came up for grabs, there seems little doubt that she has her eyes on the top job.

At the last Danish general election, Bjerregaard received more personal votes than Rasmussen in her constituency on the island of Fyn. Fyn also has the distinction of being the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, the famous author of fairy tales.

Quite apart from the evidently busy schedule of a Commissioner, Bjerregaard has also found time to run an apple orchard on the island. Running in the face of local opinion, she showed her green credentials by attempting to run it organically - with a notable lack of success. For many, this is the best representation of her personality: single-minded and distinctive, but not necessarily prepared to follow the established logic.

She has also found the time to contribute articles to a number of Danish newspapers, one of which was the cause of the most recent in a series of controversies to have plagued her political career. Commissioners, it appears, are forbidden by the Treaty from doing any other paid work. Her first ministerial post - as education minister - ended when she was fired for spending government money on a lavish suite at the Ritz in Paris. She was later exonerated by government auditors. Her tenure as parliamentary chairman of the SDP ended following a dispute about the size of the apartment she kept in Copenhagen.

Despite her populist style, these incidents point to what some believe to be Bjerregaard's biggest weakness - her love of the good things in life and the trappings of power. Svend Auken, a rival candidate to become Danish Commissioner, was quoted once as saying that Bjerregaard was a better choice for the job because of her enjoyment of the non-political side of the job.

Working partly on the basis that any publicity is good publicity, in nine short months Bjerregaard has gained herself the kind of profile rivalled only by her Commission colleague Emma Bonino.

Her personality and political instinct seem certain to keep her in the limelight. As to the more distant future, as somebody who knows her has put it: “With Ritt, you can never say never”.

Subject Categories ,
Countries / Regions