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The Nordic region – borderless yet clearly defined

The Nordic region – borderless yet clearly defined

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

Municipalities on Greenland as large as the whole of France. Five countries whose economies, if combined, would be the world’s twelfth largest. Cities where 62 percent of the labour force work in knowledge intensive businesses. The Nordic region is all of this.

The report ‘State of the Nordic Region’, published every second year, is a fascinating reminder of just how different things can be in a region which from the outside appears homogenous.

Nordic Day on 23 March marked 56 years since the signing of the Helsinki Treaty. This forms the basis for the Nordic cooperation, with its mix of parliamentarians working together in the Nordic Council, and government ministers working together in the Nordic Council of Ministers.

But the Nordic cooperation also comprises organisations, trade unions and all kinds of businesses. The Norden Association, the organiser of Nordic Day, aims to bring people together, promote knowledge networks and non-formal adult education. 

“We want to influence Nordic politics and encourage politicians to make everyday life easier for everyone in the Nordics,” reads their Swedish website.

Static Nordic borders?

The Nordic region is often taken for granted. There are no Nordic parallels to the recent debates over Brexit, Catalonian independence or where the EU’s external borders should be.

“No country has left the official Nordic cooperation, but no non-Nordic nation has been allowed into the Nordic fold either. The Nordics, unlike the rest of the EU, share a geographical border which appears immovable in the foreseeable future,” writes Bengt Sundelius and Claes Wiklund in the final chapter of their book ‘The Nordic region from the inside’.    

The outer borders might be static, but they are not impenetrable. The Nordic region is a tempting destination for both asylum seekers and labour immigrants. Demography used to be a science which allowed people to make predictions about the future. Now, things change so fast that it is difficult to see how things will develop.

The graph from State of the Nordic Region showing the largest change is the one detailing the number of asylum seekers, which rose dramatically in the autumn of 2015.

Graph asylum applications

A closer look, however, reveals the number of asylum seekers arriving after border controls were introduced between Sweden and Denmark to be historically low. In Sweden the average figure was 32 000 people a year between 2002 and 2012, according to statistics from the Swedish Migration Agency. Between 2016 and 2017 just over 27 000 people applied for asylum every year, 15 percent less – or 5 000 fewer applications – each year.

The refugee crisis is the largest challenge the Nordic cooperation has been facing for many years. Henrik Dam Kristensen was the President of the Nordic Council in 2016, the year Sweden introduced border controls across Öresund.

“This is historical, because we have had a Nordic passport union since 1954. It has been a symbol for how much we in the Nordic region have in common, our shared DNA. The Nordic passport union improved the Nordic cooperation and it has served us very, very well. I really do hope the present situation will be a bump in the road,” says Henrik Dam Kristensen in an interview in the book ‘The Nordic region from the inside’.

The Swedish government earlier decided to keep the border controls for a further six months, until 18 May this year.

“Everyone has an uncle in Sweden”

The open borders between the Nordic countries are very important for people with an immigrant background too. They are the ones who are most often stopped for control. 

In Norway there is a saying which illustrates how close-knit the country is: “Everyone has a cousin in Gjøvik”.

Among Kurds there is a similar expression: “Everyone has an uncle in Sweden”. In 20 years the number of foreign born people living in the Nordic region rose from 6.5 percent to 14.3 percent.

While immigration causes debate across borders in the Nordics, the borders between municipalities and counties represent something only each country’s nationals care about.

The world’s largest municipality

Differences can be huge when you begin to compare the Nordics on a municipal level. Since the first report was published, what used to be the world’s largest municipality – Quuasitsup in Greenland – has been divided in two. Until 1 January 2018, the municipality covered 660 000 square kilometres, which is larger than France. Now it has been divided into the municipalities of Avannaata and Queqertalik, covering the top left quarter of Greenland.

It is a long way from Stockholm, which is the city referred to at the top of this story. 62.1 percent of workers there are employed in technological and knowledge intensive businesses. The EU average is 41.1 percent.

Where the Nordic region has succeeded and most other European countries have not, is in creating regions with many technology and knowledge intensive businesses also outside of the capital cities. 160 Nordic municipalities now have a university college or university. In the areas coloured purple in the map below, more than 50 percent of the workforce is employed in knowledge intensive businesses.

Map employment

In the introduction to ‘State of the Nordic Region’, the Director of Nordregio Kjell Nilsson writes about the great changes which have taken place in the Nordic countries.

“The need for reforms and for the reallocation of tasks between the national, regional and municipal levels can be derived from two major challenges facing the Nordic countries,” he writes:

  • Increased pressure on the Nordic welfare system caused by an ageing population which increases demand for public services while simultaneously shrinking the tax base.
  • Enlargement of the regions due to widening labour markets caused by changing mobility and commuting patterns moves the functional borders of regions beyond their traditional administrative limitations.

Permanent overhaul

There is a widespread belief that it is more efficient to have fewer and larger units, especially when it comes to municipalities. On the other side, this increases the distance between citizens and local politicians, Kjell Nilsson points out.

His assessment shows how internal borders in the Nordic region seem to be in a state of permanent overhaul:

Denmark launched a large reform ten years ago, turning 13 counties into five regions, while the number of municipalities were reduced from 270 to 98. The reform also gave municipalities more power. The regions are led by elected politicians, but do not have taxation powers.

Norway’s government decided in June 2017 to reduce the number of county councils from 18 to 11, and to cut the number of municipalities from 428 to 354. The reform is scheduled to be finalised by 1 January 2020, but has run into problems. The proposed merger of Finnmark and Troms in Northern Norway has been met with the most resistance.

Finland has also seen conflicts over municipal reforms. After two failed attempts since the millennium, the government decided on 21 August 2015 that all future municipal mergers would be voluntary. Since 2000 the number of municipalities has shrunk from 452 to 311.

Sweden has not had any major municipal reforms since 1974, when the number of municipalities was cut from just over 1 000 to 278. Since then, the number of municipalities has risen somewhat with the creation of new ones, to 290. 2016 saw a failed attempt to divide Sweden into six new greater regions.

Iceland only has two administrative levels – the state and the municipality. Two referendums on municipal reform were held in 1993 and 2005. Both times the majority said no. Despite this, the number of municipalities fell from 196 in 1993 to 89 in 2006. Since then the number has fallen further as a result of voluntary mergers, down to 74.

Immigration has also become an issue which concerns both regional and municipal borders in the Nordic region.  

“Rural municipalities are increasingly recognising the important contribution that immigrants can make to their communities, and they have started developing political measures to make them stay,” writes Timothy Heleniak in the chapter on migration in ‘State of the Nordic Region’.

However, it is only so much you can do to influence where people chose to live. A survey from Statistics Sweden shows that even though eight out of ten refugees who came to Sweden between 1990 and 1994 were placed in municipalities outside of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö, more than half of them now live in these large cities.

How do you get not only the people who have lived their entire lives in a municipality to stay, but also newly arrived immigrants? The Nordic countries can look to each other’s experiences for answers to this question.

The map below uses three colours to show future demographic changes across different regions:

Green: Will see population growth even without immigration.

Yellow: Will see population growth thanks to immigration.

Red: Will see a shrinking population despite immigration.

Map population change

Nordic Day

is celebrated with flags on Karl Johan in Oslo (above)

Previous stories

The Nordic Labour Journal writes about the Nordic cooperation in the labour market in each edition. But sometimes we also examine other aspects of what “the Nordic region” means. 

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Women could determine the Nordic model’s future

Nordic countries top of global trust league


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