Thousands of Danes protest cancelling of public holiday

By Johannes Birkebaek

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Thousands of people gathered in Copenhagen on Sunday to protest a bill put forward by the government to scrap a public holiday to help finance increased defence spending.

The demonstration was organised by the country's biggest labour unions which oppose abolishing the Great Prayer Day, a Christian holiday that falls on the fourth Friday after Easter and dates back to 1686.

Unions organising the protest estimated at least 50,000 people took part, which would make it Denmark's biggest demonstration in more than a decade. Local police don't give such crowd estimates.

The holiday abolition was proposed in December to help raise tax revenues for higher defence spending in wake of the Ukraine war, and is part of the newly formed government's sweeping reform programme aimed at overcoming challenges to the country's welfare model.

The government has proposed moving forward by three years to 2030 a goal of meeting a NATO defence spending target of 2% of GDP. It says most of the extra 4.5 billion Danish crowns ($654 million) needed to meet the target could be covered by the higher tax revenues it anticipates from abolishing the holiday.

However, unions, opposition lawmakers and economists have questioned the effect of the proposal. Some economists have said it is unlikely to have long-lasting effects, as workers would find other ways to adjust their working hours.

In the Danish labour market, pay and working hours are primarily regulated by collective agreements between highly-organised worker and employer groups without intervention by the state.

However, the government, which holds a slim majority in parliament, says it intends to push the bill through regardless of any opposition.

"Normally these things are discussed with the working people, and now this model is about to be overruled. We are protesting to hopefully make them listen," said plumber Stig De Blanck, 63, who was demonstrating in front of parliament.

Danes work less hours than most countries in Europe according to OECD data.

(This story has been refiled to remove a superfluous 'a' in paragraph 1)

(Reporting by Johannes Gotfredsen-Birkebek; Additional reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard; Editing by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen and David Holmes)