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27 years since the last changes: Time to revise the Helsinki Treaty?

27 years since the last changes: Time to revise the Helsinki Treaty?

| Text: Björn Lindahl, photo: Johannes Jansson/

During its meeting in Helsinki in early November, the Nordic Council decided to call on the Nordic governments to start a “joint discussion with the Nordic Council about how the Nordic countries can better anchor the Nordic cooperation.” Or in other words: revise the Helsinki Treaty.

The Helsinki Treaty is 60 years old this year, and the date it was signed – 23 March 1962 – has become Nordic Day. The treaty is surprisingly short but was groundbreaking at the time.

“But now, it is truly paradoxical that the Nordic Council's work, as it is organised now, does not take into account that foreign and defence policy has become central to cooperation. A formalisation of the political work with these crucial issues is needed,” said Bertel Haarder, who until now has been leading the liberal group of parliamentarians in the Nordic Council, was the president of the Nordic Council in 2021 and who has held more ministerial roles in Denmark than any other politician. 

“This is yet another argument that we need a review of the Helsinki Treaty. It has been changed eight times - and if we don’t have to change it in the light of what has happened with foreign and defence policy, then I don't know when we ever would have to”. 

Some of the things stipulated in the Helsinki Treaty include:

  • The Nordic passport union
  • A common labour market
  • Citizens of any Nordic country shall be treated equally with the citizens of the Nordic country they are staying in
  • Nordic laws and regulations should be coordinated

There is also a lot that is not in the treaty – like all the consequences of digitalisation and the new security policy cooperation. The nice expression ‘borderless cooperation’ also got a severe dent during the Corona pandemic when many Nordic citizens could not go to a neighbouring country to work, shop or visit holiday houses. 

But just how would a revision of the Helsinki Treaty be carried out? And on whose initiative? We asked the three foreign ministers from Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Foreign ministers

There was a good atmosphere as the Nordic foreign ministers met in Helsinki. Here, Tobias Billström from Sweden, Anniken Huitfeldt from Norway and Pekka Haavisto from Finland meet the press. Photo: Björn Lindahl 

“If the treaty is to be revised, it has to be done here in Helsinki,” joked the Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt. 

Her Finnish colleague Pekka Haavisto was a touch more cautious.

“We have not yet gone into the technical details for how the treaty could be revised. This is of course something the Nordic Council must advise us on. But during the meeting of foreign ministers here in Helsinki, we spoke about security policies in the Nordic region. Earlier in our history, this has been an issue which has been impossible to discuss because of the Finnish situation,” Pekka Haavisto told the Nordic Labour Journal.

A little later, during a break in the debate at the Nordic Council session, we asked Bertie Haarder the same.

“The initiative must come from the prime ministers, either Jonas Gahr Støre as Norway holds the Council of Ministers presidency until the end of this year, or Iceland’s prime minister who follows him in 2033”, Haarder answers. 

Then what happens? Who prepares a proposal for which changes should be included? 

A former prime minister could be chosen or the task could be given jointly to the foreign policy institutes in the Nordic countries.

One name stands out as the natural choice: Nato’s Secretary General and former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg. During the foreign policy debate, several people spoke up in favour of a Stoltenberg 2 report. 

Jens’ father, Thorvald Stoltenberg, wrote the report on how the Nordic countries could strengthen their security and foreign policy cooperation. It is considered to be one of the most successful reports in the history of Nordic cooperation. Stoltenberg 2 could see Jens follow in the footsteps of his father, who died in 2018. 

“I launched his name to the Nordic foreign ministers, and nobody was negative to it,” says Bertel Haarder.

Not all Nordic countries are equally enthusiastic about revising the Helsinki Treaty.

“Representatives from the three autonomous areas are the most enthusiastic proponents for revising the Helsinki Treaty,” says one of the Nordic MPs who we meet at one of the Nordic embassies – where the custom is not to quote anyone directly.  

Another person we talked to about this issue is central at the Nordic Council of Ministers: 

“Governments are a little uneasy about what this could lead to. Would it be like opening Pandora’s box?”

The reference to Greek mythology, where Pandora is given a box by Zeus that she is not allowed to open, seems dramatic. As we know, it turned out the box contained a number of disasters and sicknesses that flew across the world. 

But for Denmark and Finland, this could turn out to be a particularly complicated process, if their autonomous regions of Greenland and the Faroe Islands plus Åland demand to be fully fledged members of the Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers.

In the event of a revised treaty, someone will probably also propose to increase the Nordic Council’s power. Today it can only provide recommendations to the governments.

“In the Helsinki Treaty, the Nordic countries have committed to strengthening and developing cooperation in most social areas, for example legal cooperation, cultural cooperation, social cooperation and economic cooperation, and not least to treat other Nordics as their own citizens. But the agreement contains too many ‘shoulds’ and far too few ‘musts’. The agreement should become more binding if it is to fulfil its intended function”, wrote Henrik Wilén, chairman of the Nordic Association in Finland, in a debate contribution on Nordic Day this year.

Or, as Bertel Haarder puts it:

“We want to break the consensus principle so that it is not the one who wants to do the least, who decides the most.”


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Bertel Haarder

addressing the Nordic Council session in Helsinki. He is one of those who has been at the forefront of urging the governments to start negotiations on a revision of the Helsinki Treaty, sometimes called the constitution of the Nordic cooperation.


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