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Nordic labour markets: a Brussels point of view

| Text: Jørgen Rønnest

Those looking to learn something from the Nordic labour markets treat them with envy and respect, but also with a degree of scepticism, writes Jørgen Rønnest.

The Nordic countries' labour markets might differ from each other in many ways, but the outside world commonly view them as one joint model. There are shared traits like high living standards, high taxes, a comprehensive social security system, strong unions and a dialogue between the parties in the labour market - as well as a dialogue between those parties and the authorities.

Between 1973, when Denmark joined the EU, and the 1993 Maastricht Treaty, the Commission and Council of Ministers showed little or no understanding for the independent roles played by the parties in the labour market in the Nordic countries. They were viewed as private entities not to be trusted with authority decisions.   

During that same period the EU labour market policy was being modelled on the principles of harmonisation found in the French model. 

The Maastricht Treaty granted the parties in the labour market independent roles to do deals which formed the basis for labour market directives (e.g. on part-time work). As a result, the Nordic model of cooperation between the parties on a national level gained more legitimacy. The particular role granted to the parties in that treaty could be viewed as a result of the inspiration the then Commission President Jacques Delors found in the Nordic region. But it could also have been the result of a lack of willingness from member countries to work towards a harmonisation of labour markets.

Now that Finland and Sweden are EU members, and Iceland and Norway are participating in the EU's social dialogue, the parties and the cooperation between them have been strengthened further, and we see intensified cooperation between BusinessEurope and the European Trade Union Confederation. 

Both trade organisations and employers' organisations from the Nordic countries come out as strong proponents of an individual role for the parties in the labour market.

Lately we've seen an initial sceptical reaction to the flexicurity model. Employers fear large costs, pointing to the Nordic countries' high taxes. The unions fear flexicurity will quietly undermine the protection workers enjoy under current legislation.

The main reason many now admire Nordic labour markets is the high level of employment across all walks of life, and low unemployment. Meanwhile, high unemployment rates in both Germany and France exclude two normally dominating actors from promoting their own models.

The Nordic labour markets are viewed with both envy and respect, but also with a degree of scepticism, by those looking at what can be learnt from the Nordic experience.

Jørgen Rønnest

Jørgen Rønnest er international direktør i Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening og formand for BusinessEurope’s Social Affairs Committee


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