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Nordic cooperation - a question of survival

Nordic cooperation - a question of survival

| Text: Berit Kvam, Photo: Lennart Perlenhem, Karin Beate Nøsterud

There are those who ask whether Nordic cooperation still has a part to play in a Europe run by the EU. That does not apply to Per Unckel. The Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers is all enthusiasm. If all doubt regarding the Nordic cooperation has not been dispelled by the time he leaves, he shall consider himself a failure, so goes his postulate.

Three vital issues have come to the forefront as objects of particular attention for the governmental cooperation he heads. They apply to the development in Northern Europe, the cooperation with the new member states in the Baltic region, and the executive part played by the Council of Ministers with regard to the Northern Dimension Action Plan 2004 – 2006 of the EU. It is the challenge to place the Nordic countries on the map as the most dynamic region in Europe within research and innovation. No less, it is also a question of removing obstacles that impede free movement of labour across the borders between the Nordic countries.

“It must be safe to move,” says Per Unckel.

He sensed some discomfort when he received the message that he had been expelled from the Swedish system of social Per Unckel on bicyclesecurity immediately after assuming his new responsibilities at the Secretariat of the Council of Ministers in Copenhagen at the turn of the year. Even for a person who can boast of being a former Swedish government member, of an extended career in Swedish politics, and of a secure position in Denmark, it caused some uneasiness and consideration.

“There is often an uncomfortable feeling when you prepare to depart. You don’t know who your new neighbours are or who your new mates at work will be. If you have to add to this a sense of insecurity linked to your social rights, do you dare move? Not necessarily so, “ he states for a fact.

“Personally, I did not feel exposed as I was already insured in Denmark, but it isn’t that way for everybody else.”

“Nordic Labour Journal” meets the Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers, Per Unckel, during the 55th session of the Nordic Council being held in Oslo. The Council is unique in having parliamentarians and members of government from all five Nordic countries and the three autonomous regions. They meet every year for political discussion of joint concerns. Already from the outset of the session, the significance of removing border impediments is being stressed.

The Nordic region must be a pioneer region in Europe, says the Swedish Prime Minister, Mr Göran Persson in a meeting with the press. Adding that he also wants to give the new secretary general for Nordic ministerial cooperation his best recommendations.

The Danish Prime Minister, Mr Anders Fogh Rasmussen, stated that the Nordic cooperation, in the form of a regional cooperation within Europe, would become more, not less, significant in the future.

Witches’ cauldron

Per Unckel is busy. Time is short between political meetings, handing out awards, and  conversations in the corridors of power. Being a sly old fox in politics, he is in his element.

“This is a witches’ cauldron. This is genuine Nordic political debate on its own. A Norwegian parliamentarian assails a Swedish counterpart, a Danish parliamentarian discusses with a Swedish minister, and the discussions tend to be meaningful.”

“I like networking”, he says.

“Wherever you turn, there are people to speak with. You become a little bit wiser after three days here – and problems are solved. The efforts to remove border obstacles between the Nordic countries show Nordic cooperation at its best.”

The debate covering the border impediments deals with the major and minor problems that individuals have to confront, and it goes to the core of the Nordic cooperation. One of the foundations is the agreement on a common labour market. In spite of the fact that the agreement has existed for nearly 50 years, the discrepancies between the national legislations still tend to be the source of insecurity for people who want to try their luck in another Nordic country.

“There is a need for more flexibility when someone is about to leave his or her homeland. It is a question for the survival of Nordic cooperation,” says Per Unckel.

One of the bearing elements of Nordic cooperation is strong, popular support. It is an essential premise that in order to maintain that popular spirit of community, bureaucratic barriers that impede the free movements of individuals across the national borders must be removed. Just the procurement of a personal identification number is a source of much annoyance when dealing with the intricacies of bureaucracy. This is one of the problems which one has been able to solve through the Schlüter process, named after the former Danish prime minister who chairs the work for removal of border obstacles within the Council of Ministers.

Commuting across borders

One of the challenges that has not yet been solved is the question whether to maintain the membership in the homeland’s social security system for an interim period. It does not exactly fall within EU regulations, but Unckel is combative and does not easily give in.

“Commuting across borders is not restricted to the Nordic countries, but to border regions all over the EU. If one is earnest when talking about free flow of labour, one must also guarantee that there will be no loss of basic rights linked to pension, maternity leave, sickness or unemployment.”

Impatient and aimed at achieving results are other ways in which he likes to characterise himself. Results are precisely what many people demand when considering the Nordic cooperation.

But the critics are up against an opponent in Unckel. He demands a clear agenda, and pays close attention to the efforts being made.

“Ancient secure Nordic countries are not that secure any longer, if you fail to watch out”.

We live in a dynamic time. The EU is getting larger, and the global economy is having an increased impact. The Nordic countries are not sufficiently attractive for people and businesses with a desire to move, Mr Unckel claims.

For that reason, it is necessary to make the Nordic region a leading region within Europe through strengthened cooperation in research and innovation.

“The Nordic countries must muster sufficient strength so that enterprises and people will wish to invest here. What is needed is a climate of innovation and entrepreneurship in the Nordic countries, which is better than the best regions in Europe,” Mr Unckel says.

The objective is that, “The Nordic countries, by 2010, will have developed into a globally visible, leading and attractive region of research and innovation.”

To achieve this end the proposal suggests that resources be led through a Nordic research council. The efforts would be concentrated on selected environments in the Nordic countries that are to be in the vanguard in their fields of activity.

“Is this practically feasible?”

“I am confident that we can, and that we will. It is a question of survival. It is based on the plain analysis, which tells us that the Nordic countries, each on its own, are too small, and research is expensive. Strong research establishments demand enormous investments, and Nordic cooperation is precisely the tool which can make a difference. Now we set out, the whole next year, to convince the research establishments throughout the Nordic countries that this is the way to go about it.

So, in one year and a half, we estimate to go ahead.”

“Maybe this cooperation may, gradually, include the Baltic nations as well,” says Mr Unckel.

Baltic cooperation

The cooperation with neighbouring countries is one of his pet objectives. That applies to the cooperation with Russia within the framework of the EU Northern Dimension Action Plan, and a strengthened cooperation with the new member states of the EU.

The Nordic-Baltic cooperation has already spread its roots, but there is a will to extend it further. The first step has already been taken, as the Nordic Council of Ministers has made a decision in principle to have the Nordic Investment Bank (NIB) open its membership to the Baltic countries as well.

“I believe that experience will whet the appetite for more. The next step is within research. There are solid traditions to build on, not least within natural science.”

“And the perspectives?”

“The Nordic and Baltic countries are all inside Europe. We are not going to form a Nordic-Baltic block inside the EU, but if the Nordic countries and the Baltic States can become a kind of home base for all of us, then that is probably as far as we can reach.”

“On a 0-10 scale, how highly do you prioritise the labour market and working environment compared to other issues that the Council of Ministers deals with?”

“Labour market questions, hiring and firing, security and job creation – all close to 10. In this context, both the efforts to remove border obstacles and efforts in research and innovation stand at the centre. If we fail to provide enough work, we will be bad off. A good working environment is essential. Ill health is a serious challenge, but not exclusively a question of environmental issues.”

“If asked to sum up your impressions of this 55th session of the Nordic Council, what will you emphasise?”

“The vitality – and that we agree on how and where to proceed.”


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