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Models are not blueprints...

Models are not blueprints...

| Text: Helmut Steuer, photo: Björn Lindahl

The Nordic countries love their models. The Swedish model of a welfare system with state-guaranteed security from the cradle to the grave is the best known internationally, although Denmark, Finland and Norway have very similar systems.

But it was the "Swedish model" which was exported successfully first. The same phenomenon applies to industrial relations policy, which the Danish model has had the honour of representing in recent years. Of course, politicians in Oslo, Helsinki and Stockholm have similar views on what the aims of an active industrial relations policy should be, but it was to Copenhagen that European politicians flocked. In Germany, "the Danish model" has become a concept. German politicians crossed the border to find out the secret of the Danish model that managed to bring unemployment down from more than 13 % at the beginning of the 1990s to its current record level of barely 4%.

In Copenhagen, they're proud of themselves and rightly so.This small kingdom is pursuing an active industrial relations policy, which requires a high degree of flexibility on the part of employees. For example, they must be prepared to take a job offered to them even if it is away from home. In return, the government undertakes to create jobs where required. 

A central feature of the Danish system is the division of work. For the most part, employees and employers agree between themselves the rules that govern industrial relations.The state takes a back seat – provided the parties take into account the prevailing economic situation. So far, the system has worked very well; Danish industrial relations are rated among the most peaceful.

In the second half of 2002, Denmark is due to take over the presidency of the European Union. And what would be the best welcome present to the new candidate countries in the east? The active Danish, or more precisely, Nordic industrial relations policy wrapped up in glitter and string?

A functioning labour market is certainly something many of the new democracies on the other side of the Baltic could do with. But to export a system that has taken many years to mature is easier said than done. Following the breakdown of the planned economy, the conditions in most of the candidate countries are quite different to those in the affluent Nordic welfare systems.

But we should not forget that there are also obvious deficiencies in the Nordic labour markets. For example, Finland, despite impressive growth, has continued to fight record unemployment in recent years. In Sweden, too, there are now big problems finding solutions for the sliding labour market in this time of recession.

There are elements of the Nordic industrial relations policy that are worth exporting. For example, strikes are not commonplace in the Nordic countries, due in part to the shared responsibility of employees and employers.

If something is agreed jointly, it is hardly going to be the subject of dispute. But if you talk of models, you often lock yourself into a way of thinking and you ignore alternative concepts that may have other advantages.

Helmut Steuer

Helmut Steuer is the Nordic countries correspondent for Germany’s largest financial newspaper «Handelsblatt».

He covers Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden («Iceland too, in theory») from Stockholm.


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