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Interview with Amb. Friis Arne Petersen, Ambassador of Denmark to Germany

Berlin Global Speaks with Danish Ambassador to Germany, Friis Arne Petersen

March 17th, 2016

Mr. Friis Arne Petersen has been the Danish Ambassador in Berlin since 2015. He was born in 1952 in Skagen, Denmark, and has had a long career within the field of diplomacy. After receiving a Masters in Economics from the University of Copenhagen in 1978, he began his career as Head of Section at the National Audit Office. Following this, he has held many different posts within the policital and diplomatic area. Among other positions, he has served as Head of Section in Economic and Political Affairs at the Foreign Ministry and Head of the Foreign Ministry and Permanent Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Between 2005 and 2010 he was Denmark's Ambassador in the United States and from 2010 for the following five years, he was Ambassador of Denmark to China. Since 2015 he has been working in Berlin as the Ambassador, something he himself has described as a “dream position”. Besides his duties within the field of diplomacy, he has over the years been active in regularly giving lectures at many prestigious universities, both in Denmark and in other parts of the world.

You have been the Ambassador of Denmark to Germany here in Berlin since 2015, how have you enjoyed the position so far and what has been the main focus of your work since you started?

There has been a lot of work because of the refugee crisis that has overwhelmed Europe, as well as the immigration crisis that has been intertwined with the refugee crisis. The German government’s priority has been overwhelmingly connected to the refugee crisis and most of what we’ve been doing has been connected to that. In Germany there is a wish to find a European solution and it’s of course still ongoing because there is no immediate solution around the corner. We are still trying to make the Turkey-deal a successful one. On top of that I of course had to try to introduce myself to the the German government and officers as well as key ministries that we deal a lot with, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Energy, the Minstry of Finance and the Minstry of Immigration. Besides that we have a lot of activities going on where we are promoting projects within the cultural area. It has been very enjoyable and extremely rewarding and gratifying to come back to Europe and Germany after 10 years in the U.S. and China and see how Europe works today. Germany is a key European country, so for us it’s extremely important and has always been, considering our history with Sweden in the north and Germany in the south. We have always had a lot of trade with Germany and it has been increasing recently, so for us it’s a dream post.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

One of the biggest challenges has been to do a lot of things whilst we have had the big task of trying to study the German government, and at the same time trying to introduce myself to all the different parts of Germany. It has really been a lot of work and at the same time I also try to look for the possibilities of streamlining the Embassy to engage all these new priorities that we try to have. The biggest challenge clearly will be for the coming years, with my new Danish governments so called “Strategy for Germany” where we define for the first time ever publicly, a strategy for what we wish the Danish government to achieve in our cooperation with Germany. So in different sectors, from digitalization to energy, from agriculture to government cooperation, we try to really make an increased effort to engage the German government. The good thing about these big challenges is that Germany increasingly seems willing to take more and more international responsibility. Just after the terrible terrorist attack in Paris the French president asked the German Chancellor to step up Germanys active fight against ISIL, and the German Chancellor and government very swiftly reacted and agreed to support more German assets in the fight against terrorism. For us as a Nordic country, members of both EU and NATO, it has been attractive to see Germany's evolution in this direction, and that Germany also with military assets participated in the fight against terrorism.

In what way is the Danish Embassy promoting Danish culture in Germany, and especially in Berlin?

Quite actively with Nordic Embassy compunds; through all kind of activities and events at the Embassy, including for example a lot of music like last weeks jazz concerts. Germany has always been extremely important for cultural cooperation with Denmark and a lot of the new ideas and inventions came to us from Germany, from German art and culture. I think it’s a continuation of that, especially in Berlin as it now represents very vivid and sophisticated cultural diversity. This represents also a great attraction to many Danish artists and cultural circles, so we really see a huge interest in German culture. There is the same kind of rediscovery of German culture, music and modern art in Denmark as it is of German leadership in Europe. So these years are very crucial for German politicians, but also German civil society. With the new role comes a lot of new responsibilities, a lot of new requirements of being unique and sophisticated. This has challenged Germany. I’ve for a long time been working with German diplomats, they are together with the Swedes, our closest neighbours. It’s very important to be future oriented, and try to create a future that is great for all, not just for Germany but for all Europeans. I think we very much cherish that in Denmark, and we have to make Europe work, not just Germany or Denmark but really europeanize our economic situation and culture, a European identity. A strong push towards a stronger Europe.

How have the relations between Denmark and Germany changed over the years?

They have become much stronger, thats why the strategy for Germany is in a new era where Danish prime ministers and government signals very cleraly that Berlin will be the most important capital in the world for Danish governments. That means that whenever a new Danish Prime Minister is assuming office, the first trip abroad will be to Berlin. There has always been a very stong cooperation from Copenhagen to the Nordic conturies like Sweden and Norway which we have a lot in common with, our culture, or language, our history. All of it with the view of becoming internationalized. That will strenghten our role within the EU and NATO. We find it very important to build that strategy also through the strongest European country, Germany. Germany is becoming more popular and always ends up very high on the lists of the countries that are most loved in the world. It’s as unexpected for Germany to be the most loved country in the world as it is to us Danish to be found to be the most happy people in the world. We never expected that as well and we didnt know we were so happy until we understood what the whole concept meant.  I think it’s a very strong part of Europe that we belong to and we are very happy in Denmark to be living in this Northern part of Europe. Berlin and Germany is of course more than just Northern, its also East and South, but for us to be living in that part of Europe with such strong neighbours in the north and south, we have been very fortunate and this has been very enriching for us.

You have been the Ambassador of Denmark both in the USA and in China, what would you say have been the biggest differences working in these very different social and cultural contexts?

The biggest challege for me personally has been that in the U.S and China, I could speak English but now I have to speak German and give German speeches, and that is really a challenge for me. Overall I think there has been surprsingly many similarities between working as an Ambassador in Bejing, Washington and Berlin. Of course there are many differences between the countries but we do have a lot of the same policies towards the U.S and China and Germany, we have the same government priorities in addressing these countries. I think it’s in some ways easier to be a Danish Ambassador in Germany than in the U.S and China. We’re quite well known in China and the U.S, we have a very strong security cooperation with the U.S and a strong economic diplomacy interaction with China, but with Germany we try to have both security policy and economic dilplomacy combined with cultural diplomacy and a lot of other important things. We’re neighbours so the neighbourly relations impact daily work . Our biggest project with Germany would be the The Fehmarn Belt bridge and tunnel, which will be a huge investment of more than 7 billion Euro. It will link the Stockholm and Copenhagen region to Hamburg and Berlin in a new way we’ve never seen. The transport time will be sharply reduced and it will be much easier to go from the Eastern part of Denmark, and that in itself will create a lot of new economic growth, new connections and stronger partnerhship. So that part of Southern Sweden, Copenhagen and Hamburg will hopefully add to the European connectivity and European growth. We are hoping that the government can go through the beuraucratic steps that will be needed as soon as possible.

German is the most frequently learned foreign language at Danish schools (after English), how do you see the German language and culture being promoted in Denmark? What role does it have in the Danish society?

The German culture in Denmark is being promoted very much more successfully now than 10-20 years ago. 10-20 years ago there was some apprehension and resentment, today that has almost totally faded. Today I think there’s a much more positive and constructive relationship which has led to a much more obvious Danish understanding of German culture and German language. So there is a new appreciation and recognition of Germany’s role today that also allows the German language to be spoken more freely.

You have for a long time been active in giving lectures and visiting many prestigious universities in Denmark and in other countries, what is the driving force that motivates you for that?

The most important part for me is to hear what the students are preoccupied with, what is on their minds, what are their questions and issues with their country. I learn so much from going to these universities and giving these lectures, so it’s a very attractive place for me to go. Universities are to my mind one of the most interesting parts of any modern society, because at universities you have researchers, professors, lecturers, but you also have youth, youth that think about life and the future. In that way it’s one of the most telling places you can go to hear from and learn form, you get to hear what is happening in a country. What you get to hear at the universities is a little bit ahead of the general sociological development and thinking, so what you will hear today at the Humbolt you will find next year in Germany, what you learn at Princeton today will be what the Americans will be debating during the coming years. So it’s very key to my understanding of a country to go to these universities and to meet the professors, and to try if possible to have cooperations with them to hear how they address political and cultural phenomenons as well as their take on world development and relevant news stories. Especially German students are very open, frank, and direct, so it’s attractive to meet them to have conversations. Other parts of society can be a bit more closed or polite or hold back, which sometimes disguises and masks the real thinking of the society. As I said, students are often very direct which is good.

Can you give us an example of a time in which you were involved in successful cultural dialogue and how do you see the role of Cultural Diplomacy today?

We try to have as much cultural diplomacy with the German cultural sector as possible. Film making is one of the things that is extremely important to Denmark and we really support young unknown filmmakers to come to Germany and to work here as much as possible. We encourage young authors to try to work here and within the field of music we invite new Danish groups to come here. We are also trying to make a lot of young Danish students come to study and work here in Germany, simply to exchange youth culture. For an embassy it’s really a privelege to be able to facilitate new contexts, new meetings, and other events at the embassy. We’re in the midst of starting an initiative where we will allow young Danish artists to come here to Berlin and to do their things and come and exhibit at the Danish Embassy. In that way, the German guests that we have here at the embassy will be able to see these Danish artists works and exchange ideas for new projects. We have an open embassy where we invite the German public to come here and see how an embassy works, and what an Ambassador does for a living. We also want to show how we engage the German government and society, so we’re really trying to work very actively with them. We try to use the media, especially social media, because that’s where a lot of youth are active and a lot of youth culture comes from. We try to understand what the youth are interested in and what they are not interested in, and try to engage them on different levels through art, exhibitions and in other ways provide opportunities for meetings.

You’ve had a long career within the diplomatic field, what advice would you give young people today who are thinking about entering into the diplomatic field?

I would first of all really encourage them to do that, and I would also, apart from the government foreign service, encourage young people to go into companies. Both Danish and German companies today are so international and you’ll discover that most of them will be having activities abroad. In that way, a person can go into a company in Denmark or Germany to work and then be posted abroad with that company. I think that’s the most gratifying part about being a diplomat, you can go to other countries and travel in other parts of the world. I feel happy that I’ve had the opportunity to learn about and experience Chinese and American culture, and I would really recomend that. However, you don’t neccessarily need to be a government representative, sometimes I think government representatives need to be so strict and of course representing your country, especially if you’re an ambassador. This may reduce some of the possibilities for really engaging in local scociety. But of course it’s extremely interesting, to put it mildly, to be a diplomat and work together with other conutries and governments. I think that in the future it will be even more so; one mega trend I see is that companies really play an increasingly important role in society. I think it’s extremely positive that companies actually have a driving force and a capacity to change the world more visibly than many governments. Governments are always a bit more conservative and old fashioned, and companies are always a bit more on the forefront.


News from Berlin
Hanna Lindholm, Berlin Global