Anyone who has gone to both London and Copenhagen recently has recognized there is a noticeable difference in the size of their foreign populations. These primary cities, reflections on the pulse of attitudes, demographics, and sentiment, set the tone for their respective countries.

            Around 73% of those in Copenhagen are of Danish origin. In London, only 63% are of British origin. That 10% difference could make a big difference in local attitudes toward foreigners. But in this case it is not what you are thinking.

            The city of Copenhagen, and the country as a whole for that matter, has a smaller percentage of foreign-born citizens yet negative attitudes have been arguably stronger than in the UK. More importantly, the Danish government, in accordance with local desires, has taken stiff actions to quell immigration and speed up integration.

            In 2017, for example, 64% of Danes from a poll wanted to limit immigration. The Danish Minister for Immigration, Integration and Housing, Inger Støjberg followed through, celebrating in 2017 the 50th change in immigration law that increased restrictions on migrants.

            Meanwhile, the British Government did very little in comparison. Of course, Brexit arose out of anti-immigrant sentiment and has driven the entire country to parse itself from the EU. To a large degree, it is fair to say, the UK has experienced strong anti-immigrant sentiment. Yet Brexit arose from multiple grievances internally and externally, not all of them connected to immigration. Brexit matters less in this context than the direct response by the government to foreigners already inside the country. On that point, the UK government has made minor moves. It has accepted that changes are needed with respect to the number of immigrants permitted to come into the country in the future, although not taken recent definitive actions on that point. It has imposed a surcharge of a £1000 on companies for each skilled non-EU immigrant they bring in. Plus there has been a heavy focus on conversation around labour market conditions for working class people impacted by an excess supply of foreign workers. In all of this, the subject of government actions has been heavily focused on economics. Conversations around integration have been virtually absent, or hands off at best. In Denmark on the other hand, discussions are dominated by the topic of integration.

            So how does one account for this much stronger desire to integrate immigrants in Denmark, despite a significantly lower percentage of actual foreigners?

            Robert Putnam’s ground breaking work in the 1990s and 2000s recognized that diversity is a double–edged sword. A little diversity in the form of ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious diversity can be beneficial for driving innovation within any given society. The conundrum is that while diversity may be good for innovation it simultaneously leads to a decrease in social trust. Decrease in trust then leads to wavering support for social programs. As newcomers arrive there is less sense that “we are all in this together.” Social cohesion breaks down. That leads people to withdraw support for taxes that go toward unemployment insurance, childcare, welfare, free education, other broad social programs, and in extreme cases, a withdrawal of support for the government itself.

            In fact, Harvard economists Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser from a 2004 paper, Fighting Poverty in the U.S. and Europe: A World of Difference, made a theoretical argument that the United States does not have strong social programs because its historically diverse population has never been cohesive enough. Without cohesion, there is too much disagreement and infighting so nothing moves forward. It may also account for why Americans are obsessively mistrustful of their federal government. In contrast, the more ethnically homogenous European states have had more robust social redistribution policies and institutions like subsidized healthcare, universal childcare and even free education. In other words, Danes feel like “they are all in it together” while Americans do not. However, too much diversity would threaten the solidarity of the Danish social system and its national identity, and therefore integration is essential to the Danes.

            But the real conundrum is that while there is a threshold where diversity negatives start to outweigh diversity positives, knowing where that threshold is, has never been easy to pinpoint. Is it when 10% of the population is foreign-born that diversity becomes a curse instead of a blessing? Perhaps 20%? What about 50%?

            This is where Michigan State University, Associate Professor Aaron Ponce, has found a partial answer.

            Ponce has been blazing new trails in the field of research around global migration and reception of immigrant populations in receiving countries. A native speaker of English and Spanish, he grew up in America. On his personal bio—six short sentences—he manages to make a plug for linguistics, plus law school, Romance languages, northern Germanic languages, new music, his partner, his dog, his cat, and two Danish TV shows. Why do researchers in this area keep coming back to Denmark? I don’t know.

            What matters is that Ponce asked whether there is a difference in attitudes toward immigrants among European countries with a colonial history versus those without? The paper “Histories of Conquest, Diversity, and Social Cohesion in former Colonial Europe,” from 2019, examined “the influence of countries’ colonizing histories on how present-day diversity shapes social cohesion.”

            Professor of Sociology at the University of Kentucky, Thomas Janoski, had actually done earlier work in this area in The Ironies of Citizenship from 2010. He argued that European nations had different colonial experiences which now influence attitudes toward foreigners today. There were the:

            1) Colonizers: those with “possession of a foreign territory for at least 50 years and…prolonged engagement with ethnically different populations,

            2) Occupiers: had “superficial engagement”

            3) Non-colonizers

            For reasons having to do with national identity and experience, Janoski suggested that Colonizers (ex. UK) would be the most open and receptive to immigrants from their former colonies. Non-colonizers would be somewhat open (ex. Finland). The Occupiers (ex. Denmark), due to being “beset by the dual frustration of real, but limited exposure to foreigners and unrealized colonial aspirations,” would be the least open to foreigners.

            Ponce wanted to know if his own data analysis supported Janoski’s claims.

            Since Eastern Europe has a recent history of occupation instead of colonizer, Ponce left them out of his analysis. He used seventeen European countries from West, North and Southern Europe, including the UK and Denmark. Of those two, the British Empire had been vast and encompassed large populations around the world. The Danish Empire consisted of only a few small Caribbean islands, some trading posts in India, West Africa, and control over Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Denmark’s Empire was distant, short, and limited in connection to large, diverse populations.

            According to Janoski’s the UK should, as a colonizer, be more flexible to a large and diverse immigrant population. Denmark, as an occupier, would not.

            After Ponce set to work and did the analysis he found that Janoski was correct!

            Diversity is inherently problematic, however, countries with a long colonial history (UK), and thus a long history of integrating immigrants mostly from former colonies, were able to adapt and maintain social cohesion more easily than those with a colonial past that was minimal (Denmark) or non-existent (Finland).

            As Ponce says, “History places occupiers at a slight advantage in dealing with the challenges that increasing diversity poses.”

            To explain why Denmark has been more reactive to foreigners in the country makes sense from this perspective. Diversity is problematic, and yet it was clear that, “while diversity often directly reduces both welfare support and trust, histories of conquest moderate this relationship.”

            Of course we still don’t know exactly where that magic threshold between the benefits of diversity and the negatives of diversity resides, but we can probably conclude it is lower for Danes than it is for Brits.