ROAD TO PEACEFUL NORDIC RELATIONS
By Uffe Østergaard
Only very few scholars have pointed out the simple fact that contemporary Nordic
co-operation is a consequence of the nation states rather than their alternative. The
basis of co-operation across the national boundaries at the popular level is provided by
the inviolable national sovereignty of the countries involved. Hence the particular
character of the co-operative activity, which is so successful at grassroots level
precisely because it abstains from interfering in the high politics of economics, security
matters and external affairs.
The present Nordic Council, as the former Norwegian minister for Nordic co-operation,
Bjarne Mörk Eidem, rather pointedly has put it, is almost to be understood as an
"executive organ of the Association of Nordic Unity".
However, this also provides us with a definition of what the Nordic Council is not. It is
not a government, but a supplement to the national parliaments, providing advice and
posing critical - and thereby often annoying - questions across national boundaries. The
fact that the parliamentarians of one country in this way are able to pose questions to
the ministers of another is a quite unique state of affairs. At the same time, however, it
is precisely the cross-national nature of the activity that provides the reason why it can
never become supranational or gain legislative character.
This distinctive characteristic has, however, been subject to a gradual erosion following
the establishment of the Nordic Council of Ministers in 1971 and of its 1959 predecessor,
the Committee of Nordic Ministers. The Council of Ministers is a far more traditional form
of state co-operation between governments and bureaucracies. Concurrently with increasing
internationalisation there is a need for a reconsideration of the relationship between the
two co-operative organisations lest the special Nordic working relationship be squandered
in deference to an 'effectivisation' that could be better achieved within the stronger
European community. These dilemmas present themselves even more acutely after Sweden's and
Finland's entry into the European Union.
The nation states of today, then, are the configurations through which the common Nordic
identity manifests itself. As these nations have achieved the recognition of the
surrounding world, so too have they come to appear as 'natural' entities. But although
Danes and Swedes have difficulty in appreciating it, equality has not always characterised
the relations among the Nordic states. The Danes and the Swedes preside over the legacy
from two multi-national empires, which for centuries contended for supremacy in Northern
Europe. Or rather, the two states do not explicitly administer this legacy, but act on the
strength of their independent existence. This is to a much lesser extent true of the other
Nordic countries, which for periods have been subject to Swedish and Danish rule
respectively. Hence the insecurity that until recently made Norwegians, Finlanders and
Icelanders assertively emphasise their national character, to the mild astonishment of the
Danes and Swedes at what looked (to us) like gratuitous nationalism.
Now, at the end of the 20th century, it is so long since anyone reigned supreme over
anyone else, that the majority of the Nordic peoples can freely converse on an almost
equal footing. If anything, this fact makes it even more important to recall the real
character of the difficult, and far from inevitable, genesis of the Nordic states. It must
be remembered that the active entities in this history have been states and countries, not
a diffuse Nordic identity.
The writer is Jean Monnet Professor of History, Aarhus University, Denmark.