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The Nordic role in Europe’s crisis

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

Participants at the conference ‘Nordic ways out of the crisis’ agreed the Nordic countries can play an important role in southern Europe’s current economic crisis. Yet just how the Nordic countries can work together and how much support there is for such work remains uncertain.

The Norden Association, the think tank Global Challenge and The Nordic Region in Focus created a lot of interest when they hosted a debate on ‘Nordic ways out of the crisis‘ on 19 February. Only half of the 300 people who had signed up could be accommodated by the venue at the Swedish government offices at Rosenbad in Stockholm.   

Birgitta Ohlsson“There is a strong desire to talk about how the Nordic region can become stronger within the EU,” said Birgitta Ohlsson, Sweden’s Minister for European Union Affairs. 

She talked about how she had hastily posted a question on Facebook the night before; ‘Do you think we talk too little about the Nordic region in the EU?’. Despite the late hour she quickly had some 40 replies. More and more countries are starting to look to the Nordic countries and The Economist recently published an article called ’The next supermodel – why the world should look at the Nordic countries.’

The seminar was part of the release of the book ‘Nordic voices on Europe’s future’, in which 16 writers, academics and politicians have been allowed to write freely within a generous framework about their view of the European crisis. The writers come from all of the Nordic countries, regardless of whether they are EU members or not. 

“The writers, with a few exceptions, disregarded two questions which are central to the rest of Europe - can you save your way out of the crisis and Europe’s future and integration. The writers seem to have a different understanding of the crisis compared to people in the rest of Europe. But we will all be facing the results of the crisis,” said Ylva Johansson, who edited the book.  


The economic crisis has led to the emergence of xenophobic parties in Europe and dreams about the nation states of old. 

“People have lost faith in the EU in the wake of the crisis and we see changes in people’s values as complex questions are met with simple answers. The Nordic region can play a role in this value crisis when some groups of people are treated badly or when press freedom in certain countries is coming under threat. Nordic EU countries have demanded annual investigations to map how human rights are being upheld,” said Birgitta Ohlsson. 

But the solution is not only to go back to how things were. This does not seem to be an alternative for the book’s 16 authors nor for the five people on the seminar panel or the public. On the contrary. The seminar heard people plead for a Europe which needs to become even stronger, not least in order to face global challenges and handle a rapidly increasing rate of change. Birgitta Ohlsson pointed out how much competition has changed in just a few decades. Some 20 years ago nine in out of the ten tallest buildings stood in the western world. 

Today it is the other way around. The tall buildings are to be found on other continents. Europe used to be top for reading comprehension, but that is no longer the case. Today the EU countries make up a quarter of the global economy, but by 2050 China will probably own half of the world’s resources. This is the reality the EU and the Nordic region are facing. Things change fast and what was true 20 years ago now belongs in history books. 

Different directions within the EU

The EU is also becoming more fragmented. Countries used to be said to be going at different paces, now they are said to be travelling in different directions. The UK wants a looser union while Germany argues for more and stronger cooperation. Which role can the Nordic region play in the development of a future Europe.

“The Nordic region can be a bridge. The EU and the UK need each other,” answered Birgitta Ohlsson. 

She also talked about how Nordic countries can act as role models. Equality is one area where the Nordic countries have come far both in terms of representation and in the access to child care. Openness is another. Göran Rosenberg, the seminar moderator and also one of the book’s authors, asked whether the Nordic countries should get more engaged or remain on the sidelines as a role model, with the risk of becoming a besserwisser . 

“It is perfectly possible to be a role model without being a besserwisser. Equality is one such example. We have every reason to be proud of our level of equality, but we need to tread carefully and be tactical when we talk about it,” said Birgitta Ohlsson.

But neither the book’s authors or the seminar’s panel could answer how the Nordic cooperation should look in relation to the EU. Some of the book’s authors argue for stronger Nordic cooperation and for building a Nordic vanguard or a flexible Nordic federation. Other voices are sceptical or downright angry when it comes to Nordic cooperation, for instance the Icelandic author who thinks the country’s crisis demonstrated that when the going gets tough you’re left to your own devices. 

Reduced news coverage of the Nordic region

“One problem is the weakening of a Nordic awareness. We find ourselves in a state of  increasingly closed national egotism. That’s why we need to start with knowledge about the Nordic countries and to have a conversation about this,” said Bengt Lindroth, a former Nordic correspondent for Swedish Radio and the author of ”Härlig är Norden” [“Beautiful Norden”].

The news coverage of the Nordic region has fallen by 30 percent in the last 15 years, while coverage of the Middle East, Asia and the USA has increased. However, Bengt Lindroth thinks there is an increase in every-day Nordic awareness. There is a gap in how the Nordic region is being viewed by ordinary voters - who believe it has become a more interesting issue - and the elite, who to a larger extent find the Nordic region uninteresting. 

Europe’s major challenges are the economy, jobs and democracy, said Kristina Persson, Chairwoman at the think tank Global Challenge.

“There is a demand for politics and political leadership, but not enough people take on that responsibility. There is a lack of policies for jobs and growth, and this is where we in the Nordic region should be able to do more. If we cannot develop policies which embrace everybody, democracy is under threat and we’ll be facing more xenophobia. The solution is not cuts but economic stimulation,” said Kristina Persson.

Renaissance for Nordic cooperation

One of the panelists was Finland’s Sture Fjäder, the Chairman of the Council of Nordic Trade Unions (NSF). He detects a renaissance for Nordic cooperation. With a total of 26 million people the Nordic countries make up the world’s 10th largest economy. The region has long had a free labour market and also similar values and social structures. 

“There is no one Nordic voice, but it is emerging and it is needed. The Nordic region should behave as a block within Europe. We will never be able to compete on salaries but we will compete on knowledge and good working conditions,”  he said. 

The seminar heard many ideas on Nordic cooperation in a future Europe. But time and again the participants underlined that if the political cooperation is to be strengthened there is a need for a popular mandate. Bengt Lindroth warned against goodwill rhetoric and referred to grand plans agreed during a 2009 meeting for research cooperation between Sweden and Finland. Nothing substantial has happened since. 

“Grand words risk becoming their own worst enemy,” said Bengt Lindroth.


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