Portrait of Johan Strang, background of Nordic flags

The world's most integrated region – 60 years ago

Article by Johan Strang, professor at the Centre for Nordic Studies (CENS), University of Helsinki and member of the Steering group for the NordForsk funded ReNEW University Hub.

The article is a slightly expanded version of a column published in Hufvudstadsbladet on November 25, 2023.

In the summer of 2019, the Ministers for Nordic co-operation agreed that the goal of the official co-operation should be to make the Nordic region the most sustainable and integrated region in the world by 2030.

From the start, I somewhat thought that Vision 2030 was more of a marketing project than a genuine vision for Nordic co-operation. It took two things that we Nordics like to think we are especially good at and made them its central goals. In practice, the bar was set at an unrealistically high level for an organisation with very limited resources. How can the Nordic Council of Ministers make any significant difference when it comes to the enormous climate footprint of the Nordic countries?

It was also provoking that what was written about integration – the core task of the official co-operation – felt like an half-heartedly appended. Nearly a year ago, the Nordic Council of Ministers published a status report in which 4 of the 45 indicators chosen to evaluate progress towards the vision were about integration. It appears that intra-Nordic trade and commuting are on the rise, while migration and cultural exchange are declining.

A major problem with the follow-up of the vision is the lack of a comparative perspective. If the aim is to become the most integrated region in the world, perhaps there should also be courage to compare with some other regions.

In November 2023, Hanaholmen and the Culture Foundation for Sweden and Finland released a bilateral barometer measuring how integrated Finland and Sweden are with each other. There was no room for a systematic comparison with other countries here either, but to the extent that comparable figures were obtained, it is shocking reading for us who believed that the Nordics were a uniquely linked region.

The migration flows between Germany and Poland are tenfold relative to the population size compared to Finland and Sweden, commuting likewise. The German-French trade exchange is also on a completely different level than the Nordic one.

So, we have a long way to go before we can call the Nordics the world's most integrated region. In fact, we were probably closer to the goal 60 years ago than we are today. In 1963, the Nordics had established the passport union, the common labour market, and the social convention, and through EFTA, they also obtained the economic free trade area that the Nordic countries had such difficulty creating among themselves. The central Nordic co-operation agreement, the Helsinki Treaty, was signed in 1962.

In many ways, it was remarkable that the Nordic countries managed all this despite the tensions brought by the Cold War. The Nordics consisted of three NATO countries and two neutrals, one of which also felt compelled to safeguard its special relationship with the Soviet Union.

Sometimes I think that it might have been precisely because of the strong centrifugal forces that the Nordic politicians put so much energy into creating a borderless region for the citizens. Today, we are all (soon) members of the same defence union, but we seem to have much more difficulty making it easier for ordinary citizens moving across borders.

At the same time, one would think that the hype around defence co-operation could be used to advance the Nordic co-operation also in other areas. There are some signs of this. The Nordic Council has, among other things, initiated a process to revise the Helsinki Treaty. They want to incorporate foreign and defence policy into the treaty and perhaps also the Nordic Declaration on Solidarity from 2011.

I believe this could be an opportunity to take bold new steps regarding citizen mobility. The common labour market and social convention were created at a time when people moved from one country to another and settled there, and they still work quite well for this purpose. The problem is that this does not reflect today's reality where people move from country to country, commute for work, or have their family spread across the region.

If the Nordic region is to be the most integrated region in the world by 2030, the conventions on taxes, labour market, and social rights should match today's more complicated work and family life. With new updated conventions, the Nordic co-operation could also serve as a model for new European solutions.

The idea has been to politicize Nordic co-operation. I believe the strategy has been misguided.

At the same time, there is much that the official Nordic co-operation is doing right already today, but that does not get the attention it deserves.

The work on border obstacles could, for example, be highlighted as a positive story, rather than as a tiresome hamster wheel. It's obvious that there will always be border obstacles between sovereign states, as new legislation is constantly emerging. But the fact is that in the Nordics, we have established a system to deal with them. There is a Nordic Border Obstacle Council that works against politicians and authorities, and an information service, Info Norden, that helps citizens navigate tricky situations.

It's also important how the Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers bring together and create contacts between politicians and officials across the Nordic countries. The significance of the Nordic transnational bureaucracy has often been emphasized by political scientists such as Bengt Sundelius and Claes Wiklund.

The Nordic Council of Ministers also makes a significant effort to bring together Nordic expertise in various fields of research, business, and culture through its many institutions and support programs. These expert networks are essential both for Nordic cohesion and for making our voice heard internationally.

Unfortunately, in recent years, more and more money has been shifted from these networks and institutions to various chairmanship programs and meaningless visions. The idea has been to politicize Nordic co-operation. I believe the strategy has been misguided.

Sometimes I just wish the politicians would leave the Nordic Council of Ministers alone, but maybe it's also that the Council of Ministers should try to leave the politicians alone as well. When new enthusiastic ministers attend their first Nordic meetings, they often think it's a forum of great political relevance. It's not surprising if they become frustrated and storm out of the meeting – fuming with swear words, as Finland's newly elected president Alexander Stubb did as minister of co-operation in Copenhagen in 2011 – when they realize how little money is involved and how fixed the budget is in advance. Perhaps we could spare the ministers this and give them other things to discuss at their meetings: what are they going to do for Nordic co-operation, outside the Nordic budget?

The Nordic Council of Ministers should be left alone to focus on its core task. Unfortunately, the grand visions are likely to fall back on the leading politicians' own table.

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