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Ole Norrback: Border obstacles are all about political will

Ole Norrback: Border obstacles are all about political will

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén, Photo: Johannes Jansson/

While Nordic politicians talk about the challenges of globalisation and how to turn the Nordic region into a dynamic region of growth, new border obstacles emerge to complicate lives of citizens and businesses alike.

"Some obstacles disappear, others appear," Ole Norrback, former Finnish minister and ambassador, states laconically.

He has devoted himself to border obstacles for more than ten years and since 2007 he has chaired the Nordic Council of Ministers' Freedom of Movement Forum. The workgroup, which reports to the Nordic prime ministers, has had its mandate extended until 2013.

Looking at it the wrong way

According to Norrback border obstacles represent a permanent element in the Nordic cooperation. The problems include a lack of coordination between authorities as well as legislation and rules. New border obstacles also appear when EU directives are implemented, even though this should in theory lead to more unified rules.

"People don't tend to look at it in this way: are we creating a border obstacle?"

To have different sets of rules is completely unnecessary:

"There is no national advantage to having different rules," says Norrback and claims politicians and civil servants have come to believe in their own worthiness:

"Focus on territory has become dominating in a destructive way."

Pension systems and social protection are constant sources of trouble and the people who are affected by this are individual citizens who work in neighbouring countries. Denmark deport Nordic citizens who claim social benefits, which they are entitled to claim according to the principle that people should be able to live anywhere as if it were their home country. The right to sickness benefits applies to one country but not in countries where pensions have been accumulated. Swedish legislation does not recognise the term redundancy.

"People can be forced to take time off work for health reasons. We [in Finland] have a generous attitude to early retirement, while you in Sweden must be at the labour market's disposal until you die."

Non-binding decisions

Swedish security guards are not allowed to carry IKEA's Euro cash box from the warehouse in Swedish Haparanda to Finnish Torneå a few hundred metres across the border. Refuse trucks in Haparanda are also not allowed to take rubbish to Torneå but must transport it long distances within Sweden.

"Life is international, legislation is national," says Norrback. 

One specific problem is that decisions taken in the Nordic Council are not binding, while EU decision are and they even bind non-EU member Norway through the EEA agreement.

Border obstacles in the Öresund region are extremely serious because so many people commute across the border there. There are different rules on taxation, health insurance and unemployment benefits. Some border obstacles have been removed, but difficult challenges remain unsolved. Municipalities in Skåne, southern Sweden, are loosing out on millions in tax revenues from residents who work in Denmark and tax to that country, while using nurseries, schools or health care in Sweden. Elsewhere in the Nordic countries there are border rules which mean people are taxed in the municipality where they live. Denmark and Sweden have an exemption in their tax agreement.

Use power

Norrback himself assumes that all Nordic decisions become reality but he now knows there is no follow-up. In this area the ministers for cooperation should use their power in a better way. The Nordic cooperation has political priority in its programme, but not in its action.

"Civil servants don't feel this is very important and choose to focus on the EU instead. But the reality is that most Nordic citizens still largely move within the Nordic region."

The Freedom of Movement Forum has no power to influence policy or execute it. It can only highlight problems and give advice.

"Clearer political decisions and clearer political signals," is Norrback's request.


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