Nordic cooperation constitutes one of the oldest and most traditional forms of regional interaction in Europe. Based on joint values and interests, it builds primarily on consultation, coordination and harmonisation without affecting the sovereignty of individual countries. Despite its achievements, Nordic cooperation currently faces various challenges and problems in regard to its political relevance which have become particularly apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, its future is not all gloom-ridden.
Nordic cooperation involves the five Nordic countries—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden—and three autonomous regions—the Faroe Islands, Greenland (Denmark) and the Åland Islands (Finland). It has deep roots in history but has become more institutionalised and formalised since the end of the Second World War. With a focus on intra-Nordic cooperation, since the 1990s, efforts have increased to foster Nordic cooperation with their adjacent areas, Europe and internationally. In this context, close relations and multifaceted cooperation between the Nordic countries and the three Baltic countries—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—have become important elements of Nordic cooperation.
Institutions of Nordic Cooperation
The Nordic Council (NC) was established in 1952 and serves as a platform for promoting cooperation among the Nordic countries’ national parliaments. With the aim to promote more regular and structured cooperation among the governments, the Nordic Council of Ministers (NCM) was inaugurated in 1971 as a separate intergovernmental institution. The NCM and NC have their own structures and administration, but close links between the intergovernmental and parliamentary levels form an important element of Nordic cooperation. The NC issues nonbinding recommendations to the NCM, and the Nordic governments take initiative and exert control. The NC is an instrument to find solutions for joint problems and a forum for debate, information exchange and opinion forming. Whereas the NCM is responsible for implementing common policies and projects within a contractually regulated system of rules. It promotes and coordinates cooperation among the Nordic countries’ governments in a wide range of policy areas and fields of public administration.
However, as a general rule it has been established that Nordic cooperation “never goes further than each country permits”.1 Culture, the Nordic welfare state, the environment, education and research are central to Nordic cooperation. It is driven by elements of a Nordic identity in terms of language, culture and common values such as equality, a functioning welfare state, freedom of movement and free speech. Nordic cooperation is not just about states’ interests. It can be best described as a hybrid of calculated interest-based and identity-based partnerships2 in which businesses and civil society also have important roles to play. It, therefore, is no coincidence that within the aforementioned policy areas as well as in the areas of energy, consumer protection, technology and regional development, the NC is most engaged and the NCM has developed fairly advanced capabilities for problem solving to produce concrete results.3 In areas in which common interests do not prevail, there is no (or very limited) formal and institutionalised cooperation. Foreign policy, (military) security and defence policy and closer economic cooperation were excluded from formal cooperation during the Cold War. The security policy traditions, multilateral ties and economic orientations of the Nordic countries differed too much to render fruitful cooperation.
The institutions of Nordic cooperation have always had to persistently adapt to new circumstances to maintain or, in the optimum case, to increase their political relevance and impact. This was the case when the Cold War came to an end and the Soviet Union collapsed. Finland and Sweden joined the EU in 1995, while Norway and Iceland stayed out but joined the newly established European Economic Area, gaining access to the EU’s internal market in 1994. Thus, the purpose and added value of Nordic cooperation needed to be redefined in relation to European integration. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, several changes were, therefore, introduced into the structures and working modes of both the NC and NCM. But despite efforts to become more flexible, dynamic and demand-oriented, criticism that the Nordic institutions are too bureaucratic and cumbersome, lacking clear political substance, relevance and leadership have been expressed frequently. Therefore, also reacting to new external challenges such as the changing security situation in Northern Europe after 2014 and migration, in 2014, the NCM initiated another major process of modernisation and reform. The main aims were to increase the political relevance of the cooperation and make it more effective and flexible.
Current Challenges and Weaknesses of Nordic Cooperation
However, this has not been an easy task. Despite shared interests and values such as environmental and climate protection, several differences in preferences and ways of handling various political issues among the five countries have become evident in recent years. Also, an occasional lack of communication and willingness by the governments to coordinate their policies and to cooperate within the established institutional structures has become apparent. The Nordic countries have not been able to find common answers to urgent international challenges such as the changing security environment and migration, in which Sweden followed a fairly liberal approach while all the other countries are more restrictive. Instead, governments revealed a tendency to return to more national approaches.
While these trends were emerging during the migration crisis in 2015/16, the current Covid-19 pandemic confirmed them. The health crisis has been handled very differently in the various countries, with Sweden’s approach mainly based on recommendations and self-responsibility being less strict than that of all four other countries that chose more obliging rules and partial lockdowns. This partly has to do with different administrative and political traditions. Also, although the countries share certain values as outlined above, some countries weight them differently. Sweden, for example, emphasised individual freedom, while Norway stressed the importance of solidarity with people in the risk groups as well as the value of life.4 These diverging approaches drove a wedge between the countries rather than encouraging further cooperation, for example, in the health sector or in cross-border crisis management. While border controls were reintroduced during the migration crisis 2015–2016, most intra-Nordic borders were completely closed during the Covid-19 crisis. This has been a major setback for efforts to abolish border obstacles and for the Nordic ambition of a borderless Norden based on the Nordic Passport Union of 1954 which allows any Nordic citizen to travel without passport control and reside freely in any Nordic country.
According to a recent report by Nordregio, the closure of the borders during the pandemic has heavily affected lives in border communities that rely on regular cross-border traffic, in particular work force and customers.5 The closures led to the separation of families and friends, disrupted access to work, education and basic services, great economic losses, higher unemployment, increasing uncertainty over the status of the border and a surge in nationalism driven by frustration about the conflicting approaches. Sensationalist and one-sided media coverage added to mutual resentments and prejudices and raised worries about the chances of a post-pandemic “back to normal” in cross-border relations. The report also confirms that the uncoordinated actions by the Nordic countries raise questions about the role and effectiveness of Nordic cooperation.6 The Nordic institutions did not seem able to mitigate the aforementioned effects and to defend free cross-border activities as one of the greatest achievements of Nordic cooperation.
Against the backdrop of these and various other challenges in recent years, the weaknesses and limits of cooperation within the NCM have become evident. There is no majority voting or ‘opt-out’ system that would allow individual countries to abstain from a particular initiative while the other countries could move forward. This could increase the flexibility of Nordic cooperation. The NCM and Nordic cooperation in general seemed to have mainly turned into platforms for project work and agencies for selling Norden as a trademark rather than a political arena for dialogue and cooperation among the various stakeholders.7 There is also the general problem that Nordic cooperation does not lack for ideas and proposals but does lack the political will and commitment to implement the taken decisions and agreements.8 Furthermore, in important policy areas such as foreign and security policies, EU affairs and immigration and asylum policies there is little institutional cooperation and coordination. Reluctant efforts to establish greater Nordic cooperation in these policy areas have resulted in more informal dialogue that, however, does not have an institutional backbone.
The NCM never evolved into an arena or an instrument to coordinate EU policies and establish a joint Nordic agenda at the European level.9 Despite related ambitions, stronger EU cooperation remains difficult to put into practice owing to different interests and traditions. The old idea to establish an NCM representation in Brussels did not find any support among the governments at any point. Due to the big challenges at the EU level and national interests at stake (in particular, financial), the fact that not all NCM members are in the EU has become a bigger hinderance to Nordic institutions cooperating in EU affairs. Nordic EU-member governments seem to prefer flexible ad hoc formats also involving countries outside the Nordic–Baltic region (e.g. New Hanseatic League, Frugal Four) to express and to defend their interests.
In 2017, the NC sent a liaison officer to Brussels to foster ties with the EU institutions and Nordic members of the European Parliament. Subsequently, in 2019, the NC presidium sought formal interparliamentary relations with the European Parliament, which were officially established in spring 2021. As an essential element of these relations, a formal meeting involving both bodies will be organised on an annual basis, discussing issues such as the conference on the future of the EU, the EU’s Green Deal, the Arctic, disinformation and cyber security.10 Whether these efforts will show any tangible results and help the NC increase its impact at the EU level will have to be seen, as interest and support for this endeavour differs among Nordic parliamentarians.
Also in the context of widening the scope beyond interaction across the Nordic borders, close cooperation with the Baltic countries is still an important element of Nordic cooperation. While the three Baltic states have expressed their interest in joining the Nordic institutions, expanding their membership has never seriously been considered by Nordic stakeholders. Membership in the NC and NCM has always been reserved for the Nordic countries with their cultural, historical and linguistic links. Despite close ties to the Baltic countries and being willing to cooperate with them and support them in their state building and economic recovery phase after regaining independence in 1991, from a Nordic point of view the Baltic countries would not seamlessly fit into their formal cooperation structures as they literally would not speak the same language. After joining the EU in 2004, several politicians in the Baltic countries reiterated their wish to join the NC and NCM to strengthen Baltic–Nordic ties within the EU context, but a serious debate on this has never emerged and as of today the issue seems to have been completely dropped.
The official Nordic line was to establish alternative forms of informal cooperation among the Nordic and Baltic countries, starting with the Nordic Baltic 8 and later the Nordic Baltic 6 within the EU context, instead of creating formal Nordic–Baltic institutions. The Nordic countries also encouraged the Baltic states to establish their own institutionalised cooperation. Following the examples of the NC and NCM, the Baltic countries established the Baltic Assembly and the Baltic Council of Ministers in the early 1990s. Subsequently, in 1992, the NC and the Baltic Assembly established their cooperation. Representatives of the Baltic Assembly are invited to NC sessions and, since 2006, meetings of the presidiums and committees of both institutions have been held annually. The NCM opened information offices in the capitals of the three Baltic countries in the early 1990s. These became important tools in establishing and developing cooperation among the Nordic and the Baltic countries by identifying trends and opportunities for cooperation as well as facilitating and coordinating joint local activities, in particular aimed at the development of democracy and promoting civil society. After the Baltic states’ accession to the EU in 2004, the basis for the cooperation among the Nordic and the Baltic countries changed. Where the Baltic countries had been primarily receivers of Nordic support and assistance until then, the post-enlargement mutual relations were characterised by partnership and cooperation on more equal terms.
Among many other areas such research and innovation, business and creative industries, environment, climate and energy, an important policy area for current Nordic–Baltic interaction is digitalisation. In 2017, the NCM established an ad hoc Ministerial Council for Digitalisation aiming to turn Norden into a digital frontrunner region. As a sign of the overall desired flexibility of Nordic cooperation, the Baltic countries were invited to participate in the ad hoc cooperation, i.e. in meetings and as partners in joint projects, with the aim to foster digital adaptability and to implement the Digital Single Market in the entire Nordic–Baltic region. However, cooperation with the NCM is only one option for the Baltic governments in the context of Baltic–Nordic cooperation. Currently, there seems to be a general preference for informal, ad hoc and flexible formats for cooperation and policy coordination. In particular, the significance of the Nordic Baltic 6 has increased in recent years.11 The official institutions seem to play a less significant role in current Nordic–Baltic cooperation. Still, for the Baltic countries, the Nordic states remain important partners and a link to Western EU-member states.12
Future Perspectives for Nordic Cooperation
In light of the not so favourable current conditions, the relevance and effectiveness of the Nordic institutions might partly depend on whether the Nordic countries will be able to find a new common understanding on what they want and are realistically able to achieve together. During the Covid-19 pandemic it seemed that the governments were turning their back on the NCM, not regarding it as a body suited to lead the Nordic region through crises and to increase future joint crisis management capabilities.13 Therefore, the success of the most recent reforms and future cooperation efforts also depends on mutual support and trust: Governments must transfer the necessary competencies and resources to the NCM to achieve results, while the institution has to convince the governments of its added value to avoid being sidelined.14
The NCM could remain relevant when it is able to make the governments communicate and cooperate effectively and efficiently with each other in policy areas such as environment, climate, social affairs, research and culture which is still seen as an important bridge-builder across the Nordic borders. NCM Secretary-General Paula Lehtomaeki stated that if the member states wish for that, the NCM has the potential to administrate and support joint measures to a greater extent than it has done during the Covid-19 crisis.15 This, of course, raises the question why the NCM has not done so during the current pandemic, but at least it is a sign of optimism and good will. There is also a consensus among the Nordic countries that they must be better equipped and prepared to tackle future crises through cooperation. Overall, the NCM might find more political relevance when again being used more as a political arena and as a platform for facilitating dialogue and cooperation among various stakeholders, not just governments. This applies in a similar way to the NC. To give the NC more weight, it would be necessary to elevate the body in relation to the NCM and to link their activities and themes more closely.16
In summer 2019, the NCM launched a new vision for Norden, for it to become “the most sustainable and integrated region in the world by 2030”.17 To realise this vision, the future priorities of the cooperation within the NCM should be to turn the Nordic region into a green, competitive and socially sustainable region. Owing to the current circumstances, challenges, divisions and shifting priorities caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is at least questionable whether it is realistic to achieve this vision. For some, it is more characteristic of a utopia than a vision.18 Nonetheless, the NCM and the Nordic governments officially confirmed their commitment to the vision and indeed such visions can be useful to set ambitions and the general path for future cooperation. But the prioritised main goal might rather be to find common solutions to tangible current common challenges, that match the institutions’ capabilities and strengths. Instead of just cooperating on the basis of the lowest common denominator in some areas, the Nordic institutions might want to focus on a smaller number of the aforementioned policy areas where close cooperation is politically most relevant, strong common interests exist, added value is given and where the Nordic countries and their citizens, and even other countries such as the Baltic states, could profit most from the cooperation.
The article is partly based on previous publications by the author on the theme of Nordic cooperation.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).
1 See Nordiska Rådet, The role of the Nordic Countries in European Cooperation. Stockholm: Nordisk Utredningsserie, 1973, p. 27.
2 See Johan P. Olsen, “Skiftende politiske fellesskap [Changing political partnership]” in Johan P. Olsen & Bjørn O. Sverdrup (eds.), Europa i Norden: Europeisering av nordisk samarbeid [Europe in Norden: Europeanisation of Nordic cooperation] (pp. 344–367). Oslo: Tano Aschehoug, 1998, p. 363.
3 See Tom Schumacher, The emergence of the new Nordic co-operation (Working Paper No. 6), Copenhagen: Dansk Udenrigspolitisk Institut, 2000, p. 15.
4 See Therese Sefton, “Tensions in Nordic Cooperation”, Prio Blog, 11 November 2020, blogs.prio.org/2020/11/tensions-in-nordic-cooperat….
5 See Nordregio, “Why is Nordic co-operation struggling during the pandemic?”, 15 March 2021, nordregio.org/why-is-nordic-co-operation-strugglin….
7 Johan Strang, “Det nordiska samarbetet står handfallet inför kriser som drabbar hela regionen på en gång [Nordic cooperation is helpless in crises that threaten the whole region directly]” in Huvudstabladet 26 June 2020. www.hbl.fi/artikel/det-nordiska-samarbetet-star-ha….
9 Torsten B. Olesen and Johan Strang, “European challenge to Nordic institutional cooperation” in Johan Strang (Ed.), Nordic cooperation: A European region in transition. Oxon: Routledge, 2016, p. 36.
10 Nordic Council, “Nordic Council enters into formal relations with European Parliament”, 27 April 2021, www.norden.org/en/news/nordic-council-enters-forma….
11 See Piret Kuusik and Kristik Raik, “The Nordic-Baltic Region in the EU: A Loose Club of Friends”, European Policy Analysis, Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies, October 2018.
12 See Josef Janning and Kristi Raik, “Estonia’s Partner in the EU Coalition Machinery”, International Centre for Defense and Security/Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, January 2020, p. 11.
13 See Kjell Nilsson, “Five proposals for better Nordic cooperation”, 22 September 2020, www.linkedin.com/pulse/five-proposals-better-nordi….
14 Christian Opitz and Tobias Etzold, Seeking renewed relevance: Institutions of Nordic cooperation in the reform process, (SWP Comment No. 3), Berlin: German Institute for International and Security Affairs, 2018, p. 8.
15 Nordic Council, “Kan den nordiska samverkan i kristider staerkas? [Can Nordic cooperation be strengthened in times of crisis?]”, 29 April 2021, www.norden.org/sv/nyhet/kan-den-nordiska-samverkan…
16 Christian Opitz and Tobias Etzold, Seeking renewed relevance: Institutions of Nordic cooperation in the reform process, (SWP Comment No. 3), Berlin: German Institute for International and Security Affairs, 2018, p. 5.
18 Avisen Danmark, “Debat: Corona kan styrke det nordiske samarbejde [Debate: Corona can strengthen Nordic cooperation]”, 24 February 2021, avisendanmark.dk/artikel/debat-corona-kan-styrke-d….