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Former EU Commissioner Poul Nielson: The Nordic region plays a role

Former EU Commissioner Poul Nielson: The Nordic region plays a role

| Text: Berit Kvam, photo: Heidi Orava

“The Nordic region is not an island in the global society. If we want to protect what we care about and make sure we are not overrun by the values of others, we need to enter that fight,” Poul Nielson tells the Nordic Labour Journal.

Poul Nielson has accepted the challenge of producing a strategic analysis of the Nordic labour market cooperation. About a year from now the analysis should result in ideas and possible alternatives for how to strengthen that cooperation. In six months he will present his preliminary assessment to the Nordic employment ministers. 

“European integration is a gift to Europe,” explains Poul Nielson.

He thinks the Nordic region’s challenge is to clarify which role it can play in Europe. 

“In order to secure our opportunities and to build on what we like about the Nordic region, we have to be proactive and make sure our basic values are well known.”

Poul Nielson is a politician. He has been active in the Danish Social Democrats party since the late 1960s. He has been Energy Minister and Minister for Development Cooperation as well as EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid. Now he is going to help strengthen Nordic labour market cooperation.

Poul Nielson is well aware that his long political experience is of value.

“I have seen the machine room from the inside,” he says.

“My political experience is a plus, but it is also important to be aware that this is not a social democratic task. I will take a step back from my political role, but will use some of the knowledge and competence I have gained as a politician.”

Poul Nielson will perform a strategic analysis of the Nordic cooperation on labour market issues in order to identify areas for improvement, but he has never before specifically worked with labour market politics, which will now be the focus of his work. He has been told that this is not a disadvantage, but perhaps a plus.

“I won’t be confronted with things I have said and meant before,” he says.

Working class

His long experience means his career took off at a time when the world looked quite different. When he talks about his background, I think of the character Palle in the Danish TV series ‘Better Times’ (‘Krøniken’), which was set in the same period as his own time in politics. Did he see himself in Palle?

“Palle was a social economist. I am a political scientist. What I have in common with many from my generation is that I grew up in a working class family and together with my sisters I was the first to get an academic education.

“This is important in many ways. It is considered a victory for what we stand for and for the education system which offers opportunities.”

He got a High School graduation from the USA in 1961 on an American Field Service AFS scholarship. That changed his view of the world and of himself. He joined student politics and fought against the Vietnam War before becoming and MP and then government minister — first Energy Minister in Anker Jørgensen’s government and later Minister for Development Cooperation in Poul Nyrup Rasmussen’s government.

And now you will be manning the barricades for the Nordic region?

“My work now can easily be used to strengthen what we call the Nordic model. The Nordic democracies are not something that we just have. It is something we must work on to develop further.”

He is humble in the face of his assignment.

“It is completely unrealistic to imagine that I can produce a proposal for solutions and ideas which are completely original; something nobody else has every thought of.”

On the other hand Nordic cooperation has a core which he believes it is important to highlight. 

“Ambitions are often bigger than the results when it comes to Nordic cooperation, but that does not change the fact that the dogma is alive and well. And so is the feeling that we still have something valuable which should be looked after, nurtured and developed. So there is something at the core of all this.”

The necessity of the impossible

Like all politics, Nordic cooperation is about the art of the possible, but Poul Nielson underlines that if you only look for political compromise the scope becomes too narrow.

“Politics can have two dimensions. It is the art of the possible, yet you could also say it is the fight for the necessity of the impossible when you enter into the ethical challenges which present themselves when you want to create a better world. This is when you get into thinner air.

“There is a tension between the two. If you only consider politics to be the art of the possible, anyone can become a politician. To a large extent they already can, of course, but there should be more to it than that. My assignment lets me go outside of what has so far proven possible, and I imagine I will be presenting some dilemmas which the Nordic governments must relate to; many ‘what ifs’. There could be a small element of inspiration here, which could also be called a provocation in the type of work which has been chosen here.”

An X-ray image?

Well, it isn’t an ultrasound scanning to find out how the patient is doing. You could call it a strategic analysis.

You will perform a strategic analysis and come up with suggestions for action. Do you have an example?

“It’s to do with identifying ideas and possible areas where you are free to act. I am not limited to coming up with something which must be implementable right away. But you also have to make sure you don’t come up with something which could look like a test balloon or just some ideas which can be shot down for being too utopian.”

He will not delve any more into the analysis. Poul Nielson is in what he calls the information gathering phase, and has begun pondering over the task. He will spend the summer reading up on the topic. The plan is to spend a lot of time on talking with all those who are interested in labour market cooperation. The first deadline is 17 November, when employment ministers meet. Then he will focus on working on the report which he is due to deliver in a year.   

In the machine room

You say you have seen the European machine room as a Commissioner. What do you mean with the machine room?

“The Commission has the right of initiative, and the court has a right and an established practice which means they are not static. They do not look like the administration of a typical international organisation, which is usually reactive, carrying out what members have decided. They act politically. This is what is hard to understand, and which opens up for criticism if you fail to understand the seriousness in the fact that Europe now has decided to invest in the cooperation. Europe has decided to integrate more with Europe. Many have not allowed themselves to understand this,” says Poul Nielson and carries on:

“The idea of the European Union has a certain dynamic. The Commission wants to create common solutions. This is the reality. Yet there are still major differences between the countries. In the Nordic region this is particularly visible when it comes to some of the models and measures which emerge as a result of European labour market developments.

“So labour law and the labour market represent a major theme which will colour my work going forward.“

He does not want to comment on this any further, but nevertheless underlines the fact that the Nordic model is not one single model.

Definitions cannot explain everything

“There is no congruence in the Nordic region. In Sweden and Denmark the labour market is governed by negotiations between the social partners with no interference from the state. In Finland and Norway the negotiated settlements are elevated through legislation by making them universally applicable or by introducing a minimum wage. This is a model which is more similar to the European procedure. I don’t want to go into further details now.”

One of Poul Nielson’s main points is that you must avoid getting lost in details about the differences between the Nordic models. It is not a problem to live with notions which are difficult to define in great detail, he says.

“We have other notions which we live with without problem even though we don’t define them in much detail. For instance the notion of love. It is difficult to talk about it, but we know very well what it is and what it isn’t.”

He would rather focus on the overarching perspective.

“This is about the ideas behind the Nordic welfare society where you apply a softer approach to how decisions are made in society, through negotiations based on trust and openness. We also agree that inequality is a threat to our security.

“There are some values behind this. The modern welfare society as a general concept is part of the Nordic model. So when you present it in this way, there is a Nordic model which the world outside looks to for inspiration, also the world outside of Europe.”

This is where you find the basis for the proposals he wants to put forward.

“As we strive to influence developments in Europe and elsewhere in the world, this is an important resource for the Nordic region. We have a role in the UN as well as in the Nordic region, and the Nordic region as a notion or brand has a value out there. This is not something the Nordic region can let lie. We must live with the fact that the Nordic region has a role to play and this is a field which is included in my work.

“We must make sure that our democracies and our transparent and humane societies are developed. This is not something we simply have, this is something we need to work together to develop. These are leads which in different areas will be covered by my work. 

“We must be proactive and sure that our basic values are known and understood for what they are,” says Poul Nielson.


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