Tensions in Nordic Cooperation

The Covid-19 crisis has (re)introduced challenges within and between the Nordic countries, endangering the image of a unitary, happy and cooperative region.

 

The pandemic has highlighted serious challenges with the provision of welfare services –perhaps the welfare state as a whole in the Nordic region, above all in Sweden. It has also highlighted challenges for Nordic cooperation. Yet, looking back at Nordic cooperation and the interrelationships, can we say these challenges are new?

Nordic cooperation can be perceived as a ‘lofty’ concept. This blog post seeks to identify some concrete examples of cooperation that have been successful but also initiatives that for several reasons were not realized.

Last year the Nordic countries committed themselves to make the Nordic region the most integrated region in the world by 2030. Back then the future looked bright, and the Nordic countries were prepared to cooperate in several policy areas. However, the pandemic forced the Nordic states to prioritize national security (defined in different ways) in order to protect people’s health and lives, and therefore further regional integration temporarily stopped. The ongoing pandemic has created a context that is rather gloomy and dark and one in which the Nordic leaders have to act. What does this development tell us about the Nordic region as a unitary, cooperative and happy region and shared Nordic identity? And what about the future of Nordic cooperation and how well it functions?

On October 27th, the leaders of the Nordic countries participated in a digital session organized by the Nordic Council, where they discussed the pandemic and its implications on multilateralism and Nordic cooperation. Given recent developments, this session was much needed. Alas, while the leaders of the Nordic countries had no problems declaring continued cooperation and support of combating climate change, ‘green shift’, poverty and contribute to a fair and equal distribution of vaccines, while continuing to be the strongest supporters of multilateralism (i.e. the UN), they were more hesitant to make grand declarations and commitments on open borders and regional cooperation in relation to the ongoing pandemic, as well as future crisis management.

Different values and discontent among neighbors

The pandemic is a unique situation which seems to have resulted in various levels of discontent between the Nordic states. Their tone and behavior against each other have become harsher – especially as experienced by Swedes who work in the other Nordic countries who are allegedly bullied and called ‘corona swedes’ . Physically closing the border has negatively affected several areas in each country – not least for people and businesses in the border regions, which in turn is a result of Sweden’s diametrically different handling of the pandemic.

By prioritizing to live life as close to normal as possible, Sweden’s government accepted a relatively high number of deaths.

The Swedish strategy has enjoyed a high level of  support. In the long run Sweden’s ultrarational approach will be vindicated – or so the authorities and citizens believe. Therefore, they have a hard time understanding how their management of the crisis is perceived by their neighbors.

These differences have raised big questions about the assumptions of ‘Nordicness’ or if we can speak of a Nordic identity – based on the assumption that, by and large, the Nordic countries share certain values – in addition to each Nordic country’s reputation of being moral and humanitarian superpowers. Is the life of elderly and children, freedom and the economy – to name a few – valued differently in the Nordic countries? It was the older generation who took the hardest hit both in risks for them associated with the virus, but also in addition to the fact that the Swedish Public Health Authority (FoHM) placed most of the responsibilities on the elderly themselves. One wonders, is it only important for Sweden to be a humanitarian and moral superpower on the international arena but not at home?

These difficult questions need to be asked because most of the measures taken to prevent or stop the spread of infection are based on how important we consider it to be to protect risk groups. Assessing the various approaches from this angle boils down to the question of values.

On the other hand, the values that the Norwegian government, for instance, appeal to such as voluntarily sacrificing certain freedoms in solidarity with people in the risk groups – also referred to as dugnad – can tell us something about the government’s core values. The latest press conference with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg on November 5th is a good case in point. On a question about the effect on businesses, culture and restaurants of the recent government measures to stop the spread of the virus, Solberg was clear about the government’s priorities: people’s life and health comes first.

The paradox then is that, by and large, the Swedes trust that their government and authorities are doing the right thing, while citizens in the other Nordic countries also trust that their governments and authorities are doing the right thing too. Criticism has been lobbed toward each country’s so-called politicization of crisis management and expertise (or lack thereof). This hardly provides good grounds for reaching a common strategy for crisis management that would result in open borders in the Nordic region.

The governments’ strategies in crisis management seem to be informed by values, the fact that they believe in fundamentally different approaches – i.e. let the virus spread to achieve ‘herd immunity’ (in extension and harshly put: sacrifice the elderly) or stop the spread as much as possible. This can explain why they failed to cooperate.

Nordic Cooperation

During the ongoing crisis, the Swedish minister for Nordic Affairs has highlighted both the importance of Nordic cooperation and the challenges and consequences the re-bordering of Sweden has created. Given the promotion and external perception of the Nordic region as a political, cultural and socio-economic unitary region the closing of the borders is in stark contrast to this image. Historically, disintegration and rivalries for regional hegemony have characterized the Nordic region as much as cooperation has. Yet, since 1814, the Nordic states have managed to prevent certain events from escalating into violent conflicts. Since mid-1850s modus operandi in Nordic Affairs has been cooperation in various forms. The closest to a violent conflict between two Nordic states was in relation to the dissolvement of the union between Sweden and Norway in 1905.

Nordic cooperation exists in areas such as security, foreign policy and welfare policies. The Nordic states have created several mutual agreements on education, equality, social benefits and work permits aimed at harmonizing the countries policies as the lives of people within- and the activities of the Nordic states grew increasingly more intertwined, (several of these are now replaced by EU/EEA regulation). Perhaps the benefits of cooperation have been most evident for and most important to people in the Nordic region who live and work in border regions and experience open borders and harmonized policies in their everyday lives. According to the Freedom of Movement Council (part of the Nordic Council) the re-bordering proved especially challenging for people and businesses in the border regions.

Historical Ties

As shown, there are a number of reasons for ensuring efficient regional cooperation. Indeed, the forums and means to enable cooperation exists. The main goal of Nordic cooperation, however, is not to create one political union – although the idea is regularly circulating – but to facilitate ‘constructive and mutually beneficial management of various regional problems.’ The joint Nordic institutions, such as the Nordic council and the Nordic Council of Ministers, are not supranational or independent decision-making centers. Rather they are formal, informal and flexible forums and public administration where each interaction between agencies and policy sub-unitsmake up delicate threads that create a cobweb of considerable strength.’ Yet, that ‘considerable strength’ only applies to cooperation in policy areas deemed less salient than for instance security policy, or as recent developments have demonstrated, when it comes to values and the life and health of people.

Several factors influence whether or not Nordic cooperation will succeed. Assessment can start with identifying what kind of issue is on the table and the motives for cooperation. Historically, economic gains and fears about national security have been prime drivers for various initiatives taken to enhanced cooperation. Another factor relates to when it is in the interest of each national actor to cooperate and if cooperation will enhance or harm national policy aims. Often, external factors outside the Nordic region have been crucial in determining whether Nordic cooperation will be beneficial to all in the region. An example is Sweden’s attempts to enhance Nordic cooperation on defense toward which Norway and Denmark have been reluctant and chosen other alternatives such as NATO, while Finland has been eager to cooperate. The reluctance (or willingness) has largely been due to the preservation of the so-called ‘Nordic balance’ during the Cold War. The policies during that time created various policy ‘repertoires’ which in extension has created path dependencies in policy making within the foreign- and security areas in the Nordic countries.

Helping or harming each country’s objectives in addition to other alternatives (such as solutions within the EU framework) are important explanations for the outcome of Nordic cooperation thus far. The Nordic countries are situated in different geo-political and economic contexts which define their political interests and hence the outcome of various initiatives.

Back to the pandemic. Sweden shares borders with Norway, Denmark and Finland. Politicians and businesses located in the Swedish border regions demanded that the Swedish government act to put an end to the border closure. The current charm offensive performed by the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs can thus be interpreted as a result of that demand and as a sign of Swedish dependency on Nordic cooperation in several areas. As the negative effects of the pandemic have demonstrated, effective cooperation in the Nordic region is indeed important to Sweden. Above all it is important to people and businesses on both sides of the borders in these regions.

In all Nordic countries, the border regions have in various ways become dependent on the transnational arrangements that decades of Nordic cooperation have enabled.

The way ahead for Nordic Cooperation

The promotion and perception of the Nordic region as a unitary entity have led us to expect similar responses to the crisis. When that did not happen people around the world were perplexed by the outcome – perhaps the most surprised observers were to be found in Sweden’s neighboring countries. The re-introduction of the hard border created discontent and challenged the connectedness that we, at least until the “refugee crisis” in 2015, took for granted. The reasons for re-bordering within the Nordic region challenge several assumptions about Nordic identity and the Nordic countries as well-functioning welfare states – perhaps above all in Sweden. In that sense, the session on October 27 in the Nordic council was an important opportunity to clarify the road ahead. Yet, no commitments or grand declarations of deepened cooperation in terms of coordinated responses to combat this pandemic and future challenges in the Nordic region were made.

Time will tell. The pandemic demonstrated the different priorities of the Nordic countries, in terms of people’s lives and health, resulting in Nordic cooperation being placed in the backseat – at least for the moment. Unsurprisingly, Sweden has been a driving force in pushing for open borders and freedom of movement in addition to facilitating better grounds for efficient cooperation. Given that the Swedish handling of the crisis has led the others to perceive them as potential threats in term of viral spread, the question is whether the other Nordic countries are willing to take the ‘risk’ and do as the Swedes wish. Different approaches have also paved the way for a long discussion about priorities in crisis management. There are reasons to expect a dark winter for Nordic cooperation.

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