Cooperation in the Nordic Region

Cooperation in the Nordic Region

In light of increased global interconnectedness, Finland's Ambassador, Ole Norrback, speaks of the importance of regional and international cooperation for Nordic countries.
Photo Credit: Norden 2007
Ole Norrback is currently the Ambassador of Finland In Greece. Photo Credit: Norden 2007


Nordic cooperation used to be uniquely and exclusively Nordic for a long time. Today, it is not the case. Today, the Nordic countries, neighbours, are engaged with each other in cooperation that encompasses the entire world. The European Union has become the most important body of cooperation in Europe and global collaboration is the order of the day in an increasing number of official bodies and sectors. Nordic cooperation has ceased to be exclusively Nordic. The Baltic States are involved in Nordic cooperation in several sectors, and it is also strongly influenced by the EU.

In international cooperation, one cannot be strong alone. In order to be heard and able to use one's influence, solid support is needed from others. By working together, the Nordic countries can have much more say than as individual States standing apart. If politicians only had the will, Nordic cooperation could turn into a much more important instrument than it is today for other types of international cooperation as well. Iceland and Norway, too, are strongly concerned by the decisions made in the European Union even though they are not member states. The legislative authorities in both of these countries must take EU regulations into account as much as the Member States. Strong Nordic influence in international contexts, in particular in the European Union, goes beyond the national interest of these five countries. The Nordic social model, based on very similar values with its applications possibly varying from country to county- could be very useful for States in need of major transformations in their social structures. As far as international cooperation is concerned, the Nordic countries have a lot to give to others. Here, political will plays a decisive role.

The Nordic countries should make joint efforts - first within the European Union, and then, in global contexts - to create international trade rules that are based on our values.


Globalisation presents both an opportunity and a threat to our countries. Our welfare is completely dependent on us being able to export our products and services. The fact of having an open market also implies, however, that products of other countries are entitled to enter our markets on equal terms. We must invest joint efforts not only to protect our countries from the threats of globalisation but also to be able to benefit from the opportunities it presents. Economic interests are the driving force of globalisation. Free trade does not, however, signify freedom from trade regulations. Now it is a time when global rules are called for, capable of stopping, for example, States and companies, from exploiting child labour or from destroying the environment while trying to gain a competitive edge. There is only one type of power to keep market forces in check: that is political power. The Nordic countries should make joint efforts - first within the European Union, and then, in global contexts - to create international trade rules that are based on our values. This is a major challenge we share.

Even if the media does not consider Nordic cooperation as being very important, it is deeply rooted in the thinking of the Nordic citizens. Some call themselves Europeans to express their Nordic identity, but most of us still like to say that we are citizens of the North. Nordic cooperation, narrow as it might be, has clearly been more strongly embedded in the minds of the Nordic citizens than the wider-scope cooperation within the European Union. The European Union would certainly have lots to learn from Nordic cooperation on how to make the people more aware of and involved in it.

Nordic cooperation, narrow as it might be, has clearly been more strongly embedded in the minds of the Nordic citizens than the wider-scope cooperation within the European Union.


Nordic cooperation does have its faults, too, and they should be noted. The Nordic countries collaborate with each other on a voluntary basis, and that is why the decisions made are not legally binding. This defect can be remedied if there is sufficient support. The countries are liable to report annually on measures taken based on the decisions of the Nordic Council of Ministers or the Nordic Council, but countries that have not taken the measures agreed upon, only face minor consequences. The Nordic Council should intensify monitoring and decide on supplementary measures in case a State member has not implemented agreed decisions. One must be made uneasy if one does not comply with joint Nordic decisions! In the end, of course, it is the politicians who are responsible for the monitoring and follow-up. Sometimes, the members of the Nordic Council complain about their insufficient influence. The first step for each Member State might be, perhaps, to oversee the implementation of decisions in their own country.

In any work based on voluntary participation, for instance in Nordic cooperation, decisions tend to be made along the lines of the country with the least amount of motivation. The slowest sets the pace and it only takes one State to bring down a decision. In terms of the European Union, different timeframes and central points of cooperation are often referred to, implying that it is accepted for some countries to be engaged in closer cooperation than others. Monetary cooperation is a good example of this. In Nordic cooperation, it could be considered that projects would be implemented even if not all of the countries were included. In other international contexts the practice of "consensus minus one" has been applied in connection with some decisions.

Political cooperation on the Nordic-country level often lacks the drama which is today, more than ever, a prerequisite for public attention.


The national legislations of the Nordic countries are not completely compatible with each other, which works against the removal of unnecessary border obstacles. The procedure of comparing national and corresponding legislation in Nordic countries as early as at the stage of the preparation of a new law should be implemented again. This process would make it easier to rule out any unnecessary inconsistencies. It is the disparities in laws and regulations that cause annoying and unnecessary practical problems for people moving from one Nordic country to another. All differences can not be erased but quite a few of them are absolutely unnecessary.

Nordic people moving from one Nordic country to another encounter problems in almost all sectors, in particular in taxation, social security and- still today- in education. All national retirement systems tend to be complicated and a person eligible for a pension in more than one Nordic country may have an extremely hard time getting a general picture of the rights and benefits he is entitled to. The systems of taxing pensions are different as well. Private multinational companies do not have consistent and compatible rules regarding, say, tariffs and services in the Nordic countries. Much remains to be done to make the Nordic Region as easily accessible to the Nordic people as speakers at ceremonies readily let us think.

Collaboration could be extended and explored in more depth in several sectors. All the Nordic countries make considerable investments in research, education, and product development. In specific sectors of research, national resources can often be insufficient for obtaining good results. If the Nordic countries cooperated in these fields, setting up joint research institutions that could be placed in the Nordic countries according to agreement, they could all benefit considerably from their research. Unfortunately, national "territorial thinking" often prevails, preventing the carrying out of these types of solutions.

Today, cooperation between the Nordic countries is being consolidated in many domains, particularly in trade and economy. In public life, attention is increasingly focused on political collaboration. Political cooperation on the Nordic-country level often lacks the drama which is today, more than ever, a prerequisite for public attention. Nordic collaboration is much more interesting and eventful than what gets reported by the media.

Collaboration in the field of politics depends, however, first and foremost, on political will. This is an area where the Nordic countries could do better. The politicians should bring more politics into Nordic cooperation!




Contributed by Ole Norrback, the Finnish Minister for Nordic Cooperation from 1991 to 1999. Reprinted with permission from Norden2007.

To read another Global Envision article about regional cooperation, see South-South Cooperation Defies the North.



Return to top

Curated news and insights about innovative, market-driven solutions to poverty explored through news, commentary and discussion.

Learn more »

Global Envision newsletter