Active politicians are natural on the boards of politically owned companies - including Søren Gade
The above article was published in Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten on Monday, January 30, 2023.
A large port that is very much oriented towards the outside world gets a chairman of the board who, as a member of the European Parliament, has a large European political network and, as a former defense minister and officer, has unique insight into and understanding of the defense needs for interaction with ports. The port receives EU support for dredging and is chosen by the Americans as a NATO port.
Esbjerg Municipality's choice of Søren Gade as chairman of the board in 2021 was unusual, but obviously right.
Gade simply has the skills, network and political understanding that can be used at the top level in a modern, outward-looking Danish port.
And yes, Søren Gade is also now chairman of the Danish Parliament, the second highest office in the realm. When he was elected to this post by a majority in the Danish Parliament on Wednesday, November 16, 2022, it was with the understanding that the chairman of the Folketing himself clarifies which other positions of trust he considers he can hold at the same time as the office of chairman of the Folketing. It follows from the rules for the leadership of the Danish Parliament that the chairman makes this assessment himself, but the majority has accepted that Søren Gade will continue as the successful chairman of the port of Esbjerg.
So Søren Gade's decision to retain his position as chairman of Port Esbjerg has been approved where it should be approved. Namely in the Danish Parliament and among the political parties. That's good enough for us as an industry organization, and if the Danish Parliament and the majority that elected Søren Gade as chairman have no problems in relation to the performance of the job, then neither do we.
Ports in Denmark are in the vast majority of cases owned by the municipalities. This means that the ports are locally owned by the municipalities that are dedicated to creating growth, development and jobs in the local area. The close relationship between the ports and the municipal owners also means that the ports have a long tradition of active municipal politicians sitting on the port boards. Just as there are active municipal politicians on the boards of our utility companies, for example. This has been the case for many years.
I admit that the appointment of Søren Gade as chairman of Port Esbjerg was a breakthrough, as Søren Gade was not active in local politics but was politically active in the EU when he was appointed and is now politically active at national level as first a member of the Danish Parliament and later as chairman of the Danish Parliament.
However, from a purely professional perspective, it makes sense for a nationally and internationally oriented port like Port Esbjerg to have nationally and internationally oriented political profiles on its board of directors.
Active politicians are not a rarity
There is no getting away from the fact that politically owned companies, such as ports and utility companies, operate in political environments and may therefore need political skills on their boards. Port Esbjerg operates in an international field to a greater extent than many other Danish ports, and it therefore makes sense from a professional point of view to build up political competencies that extend beyond the local political environment.
There are many opinions on whether politicians - both active and former - on boards is a good idea. Personally, I think they are here to stay, and I see more and more politicians on boards. Most prominently Helle Thorning Schmidt on the board of Vestas, but also large publicly owned companies such as Metroselskabet, Sund & Bælt and By & Havn have former politicians on their boards.
Other active parliamentary politicians than Søren Gade have taken top positions in companies, such as Mogens Lykketoft did when he became chairman of Energinet in 2020, even though he was still a member of the Danish Parliament. Bertel Haarder's chairmanship of the Royal Danish Theatre, also since 2020, is another example.
I can certainly understand that there has been a debate about possible impartiality challenges for Gade in his role as chairman of the Danish Parliament, and I have also read the editorials in Jyllands-Posten, among others. We just feel confident that if such problems arise, and it may well happen, Søren Gade and the chairman's secretariat at Borgen can easily solve it in a qualified manner. And as mentioned, as an industry organization, we are confident when the majority in the Danish Parliament is.
In my view, it is important that politicians can take on active roles outside of their political work while being active in politics. This is because the ability to understand politics, the network in politics and the experience in political processes, also at national and EU level, that politicians have, seems to me to be increasingly important in the business world. This applies, perhaps obviously in reality, not least in publicly owned companies. As primarily municipally owned companies, Danish ports operate in the tension between public ownership, political management and commercial, profitable operations. Ports in Denmark are in head-on competition with ports in neighboring countries. If they fail there, tasks and jobs will go abroad. A number of issues and opportunities are directly related to political decisions made at national level. For example, climate targets and the rapid and extensive expansion of Danish offshore wind power, both in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Illustratively enough, the so-called North Sea Agreement was signed at... the port of Esbjerg.
From our berth, Søren Gade has been and remains a competent and useful chairman of a rapidly developing port. When Gade was brought in as chairman of the board, he was a member of the European Parliament for the Liberal Party.
A position that any port can benefit from for the sole reason that a host of regulations come from Brussels and that there are a number of port-relevant pools in the EU whose purpose is to support and facilitate port operations throughout the EU. When you add to this the fact that Søren Gade was a member of the EU Transport Committee and vice-chairman of the Fisheries Committee, and has previously served as Denmark's Minister of Defense, his qualifications and value to a Danish port are undeniable. Even though he is a politician, or perhaps because he is a politician.
In addition to being Europe's leading wind port, Port Esbjerg is also a NATO port, and even though fishing is no longer the main focus at Port Esbjerg, the port has close and friendly relations with other ports, including the fishing ports on the west coast. And it is possible that a skilled politician, as Søren Gade undoubtedly is, has an eye for the port interests of Denmark as a whole, even though he is only the chairman of Port Esbjerg. My personal experience in working with Søren Gade is that he has a broad focus on the interests of the ports. Because we in Denmark must become better at standing together so that we get our share and influence in relation to EU funds and legislation.
If, as a result of the current case, the Danish Parliament wants to change the rules for the chairman of the Danish Parliament's secondary occupation, it is up to them to do so. But until that happens, Søren Gade is undeniably a competent chairman of Port Esbjerg.