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.

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