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Norway's Rigmor Aasrud to uncover the myth of a uniform Nordic region

Norway's Rigmor Aasrud to uncover the myth of a uniform Nordic region

| Text: Berit Kvam, Photo: Olav Olsen/Scanpix

Norway's Cooperation Minister Rigmor Aasrud wants to engage the Nordic countries' grass roots when Norway takes on the Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2012.

She feels the Nordic welfare models could be a theme which could appeal to both the general public and stimulate debate among politicians. Other important issues will be a better understanding of the Scandinavian languages and simplified border controls.

"Our ability to understand each other's languages is what makes us so unique and our cooperation so special. If we in the Nordic Region one day no longer can speak Scandinavian languages to each other I believe the cooperation will be lost," says Rigmor Aasrud. 

She wants to get back to the roots and to strengthen cooperation at a grass roots level. You can sense her engagement when she explains her reasoning.

"The Nordic cooperation is based on the free movement of labour. This allows us to develop our welfare. The fact that we can borrow labour from our neighbours when there is a lack of manpower in one country helps dampen the swings in the labour market. Language is crucial for this to work, and it's important that we have authorisation processes and tax and benefit rules which make it a pretty much seamless experience to move across our borders."

Doesn't this focus on language leave out the Icelandic and the Finns? 

"No, it is important that they too learn a Scandinavian language so that we can communicate with them as well," she says.

Rigmor Aasrud has just been visited in her office by Ole Norrback, head of the Nordic Freedom of Movement Forum, and Bjarne Mørk Eidem who is Norway's representative to the Forum. They presented her with a long list of border obstacles. One telephone call to the Minister of Finance right there and then solved one of them - the fact that Norwegian authorities have demanded that labour migrants must have a Norwegian personal number, which has had a bad impact on cross-border commuters. 

"That's how we solve challenges as they present themselves," she says.

"You'll never get rid of all border obstacles. You always need to keep working to remove them. Our greatest challenge right now is to make sure we don't implement EU directives in different ways which could result in new border obstacles. That's why we have organised major legislation seminars both during the previous presidency and during the latest Finnish one to try to coordinate our approach to various EU directives."

From Norway's agricultural heartland

Cooperation Minister Rigmor Aasrud trained as a business administrator and has had several jobs outside of politics - even though this has been her dominating occupation: She was mayor in Gran, a typical agricultural municipality set in the farming heartlands north of Oslo - known as the Toscana of the North. She represents Oppland County in Parliament but served as an ordinary MP for only 12 days before she became a minister. She also served as state secretary in the Ministry of Health and Care Services during Jens Stoltenberg's first government from 2005 to 2009. Since the 2009 election her title has been Minister of Government Administration, Reform and Church Affairs in Stoltenberg's second government. She has also stepped in as Minister of Labour during "two short periods". According to Norway's media she is now one of the government's heavyweights.

Grass roots engagement

Her own focus on the need to strengthen the grass roots engagement begs the question: What is her personal take on Nordic cooperation?

"I learned a lot about the Nordic cooperation during my time as mayor. We had our twin municipalities which we met once a year," she says.

"And the leader for the Nordic Association was the municipality's head of culture, so I couldn't avoid getting involved with Nordic questions. That has perhaps been the most important grounding preparing me to work with Nordic issues."

On a scale from one to ten, how important is Nordic cooperation?

She hesitates and doesn't want to put a number on it.

"For Norway it is important," she points out, emphasising the 'is'.

"Developing good relations with Nordic colleagues and having access to an arena where you can debate common issues, this is important. The Nordic region is also a bridge to EU cooperation. We [in Norway] aren't present where the real decisions are being made. So it is nice to have a colleague you can easily call if you need to. It is also the case that it is possible to get information about things coming up which will affect Norway, so that is important."

A close examination of the Nordic Model 

Rigmor Aasrud is the only social democrat among the Nordic cooperation ministers. I wonder whether she is fighting against conservative forces, but that's not the way it works, she says. Major priorities are laid out by prime ministers. When agreement has been reached it's up to the cooperation ministers to execute what the prime ministers have decided.

"Our societies are so much alike, and we have the same challenges, but the solutions to those challenges often differ. That's why we want to put the Nordic welfare model centre stage during our presidency in 2012. Partly because we know the world looks at the Nordic region as a group of very homogenous countries with similar solutions. When our prime ministers went to Davos to present the Nordic model during the World Economic Forum, the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, was invited to present the Nordic model. But it wasn't the Norwegian model he presented. When you take a closer look we do not have the same model across the Nordic countries. I think it could be interesting to take a closer look at this," she says. Privatisation is one issue which could prove interesting to study:

"You can't get away from the fact that there are more private solutions in Denmark and Sweden than in Norway at the moment. It could be useful to explore which experiences they've had with their models and how workers and the public see these solutions."

Across political borders

She doesn't hesitate to look across borders for new solutions. Her own ministry has studied the Danish administration's IT solutions. Recently a Swedish colleague came to see her to learn more about Norway's approach to linking front-line and back office services in the health care sector. Not long ago she visited Stockholm to learn more about the Swedes' inclusion programme for the Roma, a group which remains more marginalised in Norway compared to in Sweden. 

"It's too early to be more concrete, but when it comes to developing our cooperation we can take a look at what's going on within the health sector. It is our stated aim to share the work on rare diseases. These are groups of diseases we see very few cases of in each individual country, so it could make sense for different countries to specialise in different diagnosis."

There is desire for improving the focus and prioritisation of the cooperation. The prime ministers' globalisation initiative aims to focus the cooperation so that countries which join forces in some important areas will be stronger in the face of global competition. 

How does that work?

"Yes, it is important that we focus the cooperation. But the initiative on globalisation is becoming ever more extensive. It is not hard to add more issues but it is somewhat more challenging to exclude some of the things we have been doing before."

What would be your goals for 2012?

The goal must be to bring up relevant Nordic issues which could inspire an interesting political discussion. I also want to find some themes which can engage the grass roots more than we have managed lately. We must work with issues that concern people in general. This is what I care about. I believe focussing on welfare and welfare solutions is an issue that will engage people." 


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