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Freedom of Movement Council rids Nordics of some 90 border barriers

| Text: Line Scheistrøen

Since 2014, the Nordic Freedom of Movement Council has helped get rid of nearly 90 border barriers between the Nordic countries. But the Council members are not running out of work – there are still plenty to get on with.

“The Freedom of Movement Council is the inconvenient colleague who taps our ministers on the shoulder and sets demands. We represent Nordic citizens and businesses and carry a great responsibility,” writes Vibeke Hammer Madsen in the Council’s 2022 annual report.

Madsen previously headed the Federation of Norwegian Enterprise, Virke. She was the leader of the Freedom of Movement Council in 2022 and has been the Norwegian representative on the Council for several years.

The numbers speak

The Freedom of Movement Council was set up in 2014 by the Nordic governments. Its mandate was very clear from day one: to identify barriers that limit the freedom of movement for people and businesses in the Nordics and to pursue the issues until they are solved by the relevant government ministries. 

The Council aims to remove five to eight border barriers every year. It has kept to that goal pretty consistently according to the annual reports from 2014 until 2022 (2023 is yet to be published). 2014, the Council’s first year, was the only time the result was considerably lower. 

The “top year” of 2018 saw as many as 14 border barriers removed. Adding all this up, the Freedom of Movement Council has helped get rid of nearly 90 border barriers (including some in 2023). 

Source: Council of Nordic Ministries

But it is worth noting that the annual reports detail far more cases than the 90-odd that have been solved. Each annual report identifies a range of border barriers. Some are being worked on while others have not been prioritised by the Council members. 

Solved and unsolved

So which barriers are we talking about? The Freedom of Movement Council has put them into these groups: labour market, education, social and health sector, tax/economics and business. Yet cases and issues do blur into each other – there will be cases in “the business category” that also have an impact on the labour market.

Some examples of barriers that have been removed to benefit employees:

  • Commuters who are injured at work have the right to rehabilitation where they live.
  • Employees have the right to unemployment benefits in different countries without delay, to prevent them from receiving reduced amounts.

And here are a few examples of still-existing barriers:

  • Work experience in another Nordic country – not possible because it is not approved by the country where the education is taken.
  • Bank account issues for border commuters and businesses in the Nordic region – reports say some citizens and businesses experience significant problems when trying to open bank accounts in another Nordic country. 

Good enough?

Getting rid of border barriers can take time and is harder than many think. This has caused frustration among Freedom of Movement Council members. After spending eight years on the Council, including as chair in 2015, Ole Stavad from Denmark wrote this in the annual report: 

“There is a lot to celebrate. And yet I never cease to wonder how slow and difficult it is to change unnecessary rules. Although many face the task with willingness, even more people try to find reasons to argue that the existing rules are ‘good enough’. These attitudes in various ‘systems’ can only be changed when ministers and parliamentarians show far more political engagement.”

The Covid years

The Covid pandemic showed that crises can bring challenges to the freedom of movement within the Nordic region. People living and working in border areas who had spent decades moving freely across borders faced a new reality “overnight”: They had to stay at home, and for some, this meant working from home. 

2020 and 2021 were also particularly challenging years for the Freedom of Movement Council.

In a short space of time, the Council had to deal with a range of Covid-related issues. Some were solved relatively quickly, while others needed more time and resources. One issue that cropped up was how working from home affected where people paid national insurance and tax.

Bertel Haarder, who led the Freedom of Movement Council in 2020, called the year an "annus horribilis with hope”.

After the Covid pandemic, the Freedom of Movement Council was given a clearer mandate in 2022 which would allow it to move faster and more resolutely when crises threaten the freedom of movement. 

Frontline service

The process of removing border barriers normally begins with the barriers being identified by the information service Info Norden or the cross-regional information services Øresunddirekt, Grensetjänsten Norway-Sweden and Gränstjänsten Sweden-Finland-Norway. 

Citizens and businesses use these services on a daily basis through their websites, social media or via email and telephone. During the Covid pandemic, the need for information was particularly large. By 2022, things were back to “normal”, meaning the information services received 35,000-plus requests via email and telephone.

“The number of inquiries has risen enormously and the types of questions we receive are getting increasingly complex” Anna Sophie Liebst, the project leader for Info Norden’s Stockholm office, told the Nordic Labour Journal when the service turned 25 in 2023.

A hub for border barriers

Border barriers that have no immediate solution can be registered in the Border database. This is a kind of hub for cross-border barriers between the Nordic countries. The idea is to make it possible to follow the progress of how different border barriers are being solved. 

106 border barriers are currently registered in the database. The fact that they are there, does not mean they are all unsolved. Some are solved, some yet-to-be-solved and others have been discarded. 

2023 and beyond

The Freedom of Movement Council has spent a lot of time in 2023 to simplify labour market tax rules. The Report ‘Working Across the Nordic Region’ mentions how tax can be a challenge for cross-border commuters. The report also proposes solutions.

Another issue that came to the fore in 2023 was the Swedish government’s proposal to tighten ID checks at the borders. The Freedom of Movement Council was critical to this, arguing it would have major consequences for thousands of cross-border commuters and businesses.

The Freedom of Movement Council’s 2023 annual report will not be ready until spring, when it will be presented during the Nordic Council session on 8 and 9 April. But the Council secretariat has told the Nordic Labour Journal that six border barriers and one theme have been dealt with during 2023. It is too early to categorise them as “solved” or “discarded/unsolved”. 


The Freedom of Movement Council
  • Set up in 2014
  • 10 members – representatives from the five Nordic countries plus the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Åland, the Nordic Council of Ministers Secretary General and one representative from the Nordic Council.
  • The presidency follows the presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers. During the Swedish presidency this year, Anders Ahnlid heads the Freedom of Movement Council (read our interview with him here). 
  • The secretariat shares offices with the Nordic Council of Ministers.
  • The Council’s mandate is threefold: Solve existing Nordic border barriers, prevent new ones from emerging and improve information.

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