There is no place in the world I would rather be than in London,” smiles Lars Thuesen, Denmark’s newly-arrived Ambassador to London.
The son of a Jutland farmer, Thuesen says he always dreamt of becoming a diplomat. “And I always wanted to be posted to London.”
That’s because Britain and Denmark click, like two perfect Lego bricks. “There are so many ties between our two countries, culturally, economically, trade, politically, militarily. Even our royal families are related,” he says.
Losing a big ally
So Britain’s decision to leave the EU was a blow to Danes. “We respect but regret the decision, and we are going to miss the UK – no doubt about it,” admits the Ambassador, who, prior to this posting, served for six years as Denmark’s State Secretary for Trade and Strategy and worked closely with the British negotiating EU free trade agreements. “We are both free traders and for us it was a huge advantage to have a big ally like the UK. We can feel Britain is leaving already because in some areas it is not quite as active as it used to be.”
But Denmark is not about to follow its big ally to the exit door. “Since Brexit, support for EU membership has increased in Denmark,” Thuesen points out. “The Danes have probably seen the uncertainty it has caused in the UK and, as a small trading nation, and with what is going on in the world, the Danes seem to feel more comfortable inside the EU.”
Preparing for post-Brexit diplomacy
As Britain becomes a ‘third country’, aspects of Danish-British diplomacy will inevitably change but the Ambassador has the ideal blend of experience to manage that, as a trade specialist with 15 years of EU experience, including two postings in Madrid (one as Ambassador) as well as having worked with EU affairs, such as treaty changes, EU enlargements, presidencies and coordination of the Danish EU policy. His four years as Under Secretary for the Consular Service will be useful when dealing with the rights of Danish citizens in the UK post-Brexit.
The Danish Embassy is expanding its technical capacity to meet the enhanced reporting that the new political circumstances require. Whereas in pre-Brexit days, Danes and Brits would compare notes on EU matters and work on a common approach in Brussels, now the additional challenge is to analyse the British position on Brexit. “And that is quite challenging,” he admits. “While Brussels leads the negotiations, the embassy plays an important role in understanding British thinking and where its interests lie and communicating that back to Copenhagen.” As a measure of the intense interest, Thuesen hosted no less than four ministers in his first two weeks in office.
Close and constructive
Talks are progressing slowly but the ultimate aim for Denmark is a deal between Britain and the EU that establishes “a close and constructive relationship,” says Thuesen, including a bespoke trade agreement. “Britain has made it clear that it’s not going to be an integrated part of the single market, because the UK doesn’t want to be a rule taker. So it’s probably not going to be as advanced as the trade relationship we have with Norway, but it’s bound to be more advanced than our treaty with Canada.”
And although Britain and Denmark are close allies, there is a fundamental difference, cautions the Ambassador. “Our future is in the EU and our national interest is with the EU 27, so while we still want to cooperate and trade as much as possible with the UK, there is a difference between being a member of the club and being outside the club.”
Because of that he is realistic about the possibility of frictionless trade: “There is going to be a difference between being a member of the Single Market and being outside but it’s hopefully not going to be an earthquake.”
Denmark is also a big investor in the UK economy and Danish companies employ close to 100,000 Brits and with supply-chains criss-crossing the North Sea. “The wellbeing of the UK and its economy is also in our national interest,” he stresses.
Although both countries are NATO members, the future foreign and security relationship will be more complex, he says. “The UK still wants to participate in European foreign, security and defence cooperation but they are leaving the institutions, so we will have to invent a completely new mechanism.”
What won’t change are the people-to-people ties, says Thuesen. More than a million Danes visit the UK every year and a quarter of Danish students studying abroad choose the UK (and the Ambassador is confident Britain will continue to participate in EU education and research programmes).
Brits are avid consumers of Danish culture, whether it’s food, literature, design or telly (in a nod to the British obsession with the political drama Borgen, he has a portrait of the fictional Danish Prime Minister on his bookshelf).
The iconic modernist Arne Jacobsen-designed Embassy hosts thousands of visitors every year – “I had five or six hundred in my so-called ‘private residence’ in my first month!” he laughs. This month Londoners were wowed as the building was transformed into a high-tech light installation to celebrate Aarhus as European Capital of Culture.
So the fundamental bricks of the bilateral relationship are solid, and while Thuesen and his team find ways to reconfigure them post-Brexit, the two nations will always click.