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2023 Nordic Council – dominated by security policy

2023 Nordic Council – dominated by security policy

| Text: Björn Lindahl

More defence and security politics in the Nordic Council, but hardly any new money. It is still unclear whether the three autonomous areas can become full-fledged members. Only Sweden opposes a dedicated council of ministers for transport. That is how you could sum up this year’s Nordic Council session.

The Nordic Council session was held over four intensive days in Oslo between 20 October to 2 November. There were an unusually large number of participating government ministers and Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also addressed the session. Many ministers talked about what unites the Nordics, others focussed on the differences.

The session is a celebration of everything Nordic, with speeches, debates, awards, committee work and informal gatherings. Everyone is careful not to say anything that might upset a different nation’s representatives, so it is rare for things to get heated. 

Jens Stoltenberg

Jens Stoltenberg addressed the Nordic Council for the second time in two years. Photo: Magnus Fröderberg/

In the middle of all this Nordic “hygge” the outside world did make itself known, however. The two biggest issues by far were Sweden’s upcoming Nato membership and the conflict between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip. For a labour journal, it can be tricky to find news in that area, but the fact that all of the five Nordic countries and the three autonomous areas soon will be in the same defence alliance will also change the Nordic Council. 

In Oslo, for the first time ever, all the defence ministers addressed the 87 participants who are elected on the basis of their respective political parties’ strength in their national parliaments. Defence policy has previously not been part of the cooperation in the Nordic Council of Ministers nor a theme during the sessions.

The prime ministers and foreign ministers, along with the Nordic ministers for cooperation, all addressed the participants. Being a Nordic minister for cooperation is normally a side hustle for ministers who run completely separate government ministries.

From Iceland, which holds this year’s Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers, Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson holds that position. He is also the Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market. From Norway, the cooperation minister is the country’s Minister of International Development, in Sweden it is the Minister for EU Affairs, in Finland the Minister of Education and in Denmark the Minister for Ecclesiastical Affairs.

Tobias Billström

The Sewedish Minsiter for Foreign Affairs Tobias Billström. Photo: Magnus Fröderberg.

How important the Nordic Council is perceived to be often stands in inverse proportion to the size of the country. Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Tobias Billström made sure he put the Nordic region in an international perspective.

“We would not only have a place in G20 but also in G10,” he said, alluding to the group of the world’s richest countries.

Sweden takes over the Presidency of the Council of Ministers next year, but Tobias Billström seemed equally interested in the informal cooperation that is happening within what is known as N5. When the Baltic countries are also invited it is known as NB8.

A year ago, the Nordic Council began evaluating the 1962 Helsinki Treaty. It has been called “the constitution” for the Nordic cooperation and is being amended as Finland and Sweden (most probably) are gaining Nato membership.

Many Nordic enthusiasts also see this as a chance to sharpen the treaty text to say the countries not only “desire” to cooperate in certain areas but that they “shall” do it. Defence policy should of course be added as an area of cooperation.

But should the Nordic Council also get its way with the creation of a Council of Ministers for Transport? This was a decision that was taken already in 2018. The cooperation ministers could only promise yet another review which is due to be published in February and which will be considered during the Nordic Council’s special session in April.

Erling Eidesgaard

Erling Eidesgaard från Färöarna. Foto: Stine Østby

Another sensitive issue is whether the autonomous regions’ status should be upgraded.

“For 45 years, the Faroes have been knocking on the door; we want to become fully-fledged members of the Nordic cooperation, but we are not allowed to play with the others. We are like The Little Match Girl; we are outside looking in through the windows into the living rooms, into the warmth, where the five real members are allowed to be,” said Faroese Erling Eidesgaard from the Nordic Green Left Alliance, and continued with even greater pathos:

“The Faroe Islands is a country, we are a people, we are a nation, and that is why it hurts when our Nordic friends strategically say we are nothing but a region. We are a country and we are kept outside. We have a lot to offer and a burning desire for full membership. We are knocking (and here he knocked on the rostrum): Listen to us, because we will not be knocking forever.” 

Mette Frederiksen

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. Photo: Stine Østby/

Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen used her speech to present unexpectedly clear support for full membership for the Faroe Islands and Greenland. 

“The Nordic cooperation must also develop. We must never get stuck in what we have and what we have always done. That is why I recommend that both the Faroes and Greenland gain a stronger position in the Nordic cooperation."

Sweden, however, remains uncertain whether reopening the Helsinki Treaty is a smart move.

“From the Swedish perspective, I am quite clear that I do not see the need to invest effort, time, and money in reviewing the Helsinki Agreement. It has served us well,” she said.

“I believe we should focus on our mandate, namely to make the Nordic region the world’s most integrated region. What a renegotiation would mean for EU cooperation I do not know, but that would be a complex issue we would have to take into account.” 

Jessika Roswall

Sweden's Minister for European Union Affairs Jessika Roswall is also the Minster for Nordic Cooperation. Photo: Stine Østby/

Iceland is clear in its support for the three autonomous areas, while the issue is probably trickiest for Finland where negotiations for a self-governing agreement for Åland are moving very slowly. Åland has the least self-governance out of all the autonomous areas, at least when it comes to taxing their own citizens.

With only 30,000 residents, the politicians there see it as too great a task to hold the Presidency of the Council of Ministers on their own. Greenland is very willing to influence foreign policy in the Arctic but out of all the eight Nordic Council members the least interested in Nordic cooperation.

The question then, is whether there will be some kind of in-between solution – an N6 or N7 to use Tobias Billström’s terminology.

The Nordic Council would like to see more power to the parliamentarians as well as a bigger budget. This has been fixed at around one billion Danish kroner (€134m) for a very long time. But Mette Fredriksen was also very clear when asked whether there was scope for a budget increase.

“I fully agree that cooperation is good. I do not agree that we should spend more money on it. I have to put this very strongly and honestly. In my view, the most important thing when it comes to Nordic cooperation is that we talk together, and sometimes that is the cheapest thing there is in politics. So I have to be direct and honest: I would support closer cooperation, but I am not for spending more money.”

The defence policy will, however, impact the Nordic cooperation. Several of the speakers pointed out that Nordic transport routes generally run north to south and not west to east. If the member states were to really develop a joint defence programme, railways, bridges and roads must be strengthened and improved. It might also be necessary to establish joint storage facilities.

Sweden’s Minister for Defence Pål Jonson captured the zeitgeist when he pointed out that we have gone from the “just in time” principle to building up storage facilities “just in case”. 

Bryndís Haraldsdóttir and Oddný G. Harðardóttir

Bryndís Haraldsdóttir (right) was elected the new President and Oddný G. Harðardóttir was elected Vice President. Photo: Magnus Fröderberg/

Next year, Sweden takes over the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, while a new 2024 President for the Nordic Council was elected on the season’s last day. Bryndís Haraldsdóttir is the new President and Oddný G. Harðardóttir is Vice President.

The news was summed up like this at

“At several points, the Icelandic programme refers to the ongoing process initiated by the Presidium of the Nordic Council to look at the possibility of updating the Helsinki Treaty, which regulates official Nordic cooperation. This process is mentioned as a specific focus for the Presidency, as part of which issues such as security policy, climate policy and the use of languages at Nordic Council meetings could be addressed.”


Stortinget – the Norwegian parliament

hosted this year's Nordic Council session. While delegates debated in the hall, demonstrators supporting the Palestinians could be heard outside.


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