Common values in changing times

”We will not turn our backs on the Nordic Region,” Prime Minister Theresa May said when she addressed Nordic members of parliament at the Nordic Council plenary session in Oslo on the 30th of November.  That the United Kingdom is leaving the EU and not Europe is by now a well-known mantra for those following the Brexit negotiations. The Prime Minister’s convictions regarding the Nordic region were however previously unexpressed. Her decision to accept an invitation to the Nordic Council was in itself an indication that the Nordic region matters.

In her address to the Nordic Council, the British Prime Minister Theresa May stressed the ties between the UK and Nordic countries, which according to her, transcend both time and distance. The Nordic and UK cultures, history and economies are deeply intertwined. Today the values which are shared by the Nordic countries and the UK represent the cornerstone of these ties: democracy, human rights and rule of law.

The Prime Minister identified three pillars of existing UK-Nordic cooperation that could be further deepened.

Firstly, the previously mentioned values must be defended and the rules-based order must be maintained. In an era when the system of rules and norms as well as the values within the system are being challenged by both states and non-state actors, the UK and the Nordic countries, along with all democratic states, are required step up. Theresa May suggested the use of diplomacy, defence and the development of hybrid capabilities to meet these challenges.

Secondly, she called for leadership in clean growth; dismissing the idea that there exists a choice between a greener environment and economic growth. The Nordic countries and the UK can produce the innovative solutions for a greener environment.

Finally, the Prime Minister asked the Nordic countries to engage and commit to international aid and development. Despite the fact that most of the Nordic countries have recently decreased their international aid contributions and both migration and development have turned into  sore subjects in domestic politics, Prime Minister May did not hesitate to refer to them as the “powerhouses of international development”. The Prime Minister’s global ambitions for post-Brexit United Kingdom were not to be missed in her address.

The Nordic Council and two foreign Prime Ministers

The attendance of ministers at Nordic Council sessions is business-as-usual. The plenary sessions are attended by the Nordic Prime Ministers, as well as a number of ministers from the Nordic countries, ranging from foreign to environment ministers.

Despite this, Theresa May’s attendance at this year’s plenary session was, for lack of a better term, exceptional. Exceptional for the Prime Minister, who has yet to address the European Parliament (or any other parliamentary assembly for that matter); exceptional for the Nordic Council, which has to date only been addressed by two foreign heads of state, with May preceded by the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1992.

Theresa May’s attendance at this year’s plenary session was, for lack of a better term, exceptional. Exceptional for the Prime Minister; who has yet to address the European Parliament and exceptional for the Nordic Council. #nrpol Klikkaa ja Twiittaa

Much has changed since 1992. The European Union has experienced fundamental changes to its structures, functioning and scope: thirteen new members, new legislative powers and the muddle-through of the financial crisis. Meanwhile, Nordic cooperation has remained relatively constant. No new members, no new structures. There was an attempt to change the committee structure of the Nordic Council, with the introduction of an EU committee in 1997. The structure was dismissed only four years later as a failure.

Nordic cooperation has struggled since the end of the Cold War with the implications of European integration. In the 1990s Nordic cooperation was deemed by many as redundant, when the EU fulfilled the functions that the Nordic cooperation had previously held: economic and political integration, promotion of welfare and equality as well as peace. Schengen replaced the Nordic Passport Union (1958) and the Single Market the Common Nordic Labour Market (1954).  The referendums in Finland, Norway and Sweden in the 1990s exemplified this relationship between the Nordics and the EU; for many a citizen the choice was depicted as either EU or Nordic cooperation.

The Nordic Region: it matters

In 1992 the theme of the Nordic Council’s plenary session was Europe. There were discussions about the Nordic model in relation to European integration and the possibility of establishing a Nordic office in Brussels was also on the agenda. The atmosphere in Europe was generally positive, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the end of a divided Europe seemed inevitable. Kohl had a personal interest in attending the Nordic Council session in his pursuit to get the Nordic countries to become members of the EU.

In 2018, Europe is like in 1992, under transformation. Brexit, Hungary and Poland challenging the EU’s normative powers from the inside, the migration crisis creating internal divisions, Putin in the East and the melting Arctic in the North – the list of problems could go on. Theresa May, just like Helmut Kohl in 1992, had national interest in mind. The Nordic countries are allies and have good experiences of cooperation between EU Member states and non-Member States.

Kohl and May addressed the Nordic Council in very times, but in times of change in Europe. The future of Europe was in both cases looming, unknown. These two addresses also indicate two things. Firstly the Nordic countries matter in Europe in times of change. They mattered in 1992 and they matter in 2018. The Nordic countries are not to be left unaccounted for, when change is underway. Kohl and May saw this; they both sought national interest in their respective addresses to the Nordic Council.  It was important for Kohl when expanding the Union and important for May when leaving the Union.

Furthermore, these two addresses by foreign Prime Ministers to the Nordic Council serve as an indication that Nordic cooperation cannot exist in isolation from European integration. European issues are Nordic issues. The binary construction of a Nordic region which exists as parallel or in opposition to Europe can and should at last be abandoned.

A post-Brexit Europe and a potential Nordic renaissance

The fact that Brexit will have an impact on the Nordic countries is certain. The UK is an important trading partner for the Nordic countries, and depending on what kind of exit the UK will leave by, it could severely harm economic ties with the Nordic countries. The impact of Brexit on Nordic cooperation, however, remains largely unexplored.

An area of growing Nordic cooperation but also concern is security and defence. The near vicinity of the Nordic countries has changed to become more insecure and unpredictable since the Russian annexation of Crimea. Cooperation with the UK in this field is in the Nordic interest, seeing as the UK has the largest defence in Europe. Theresa May underlined the British commitment of the High North and its marine environment, stressing bilateral relationships and NATO. Furthermore, she emphasised non-traditional threats such as disinformation and cyber activities – aspects that threaten the very foundations of democratic society. The Nordic defence cooperation is perceived as important and security and defence is more often than not on the Nordic Council’s agenda. Security and the Nordic way of governance are increasingly seen as inherently connected. Cooperation with the UK can only be beneficial in this area.

“…there will be a strong Nordic voice in the EU Council when the United Kingdom has left – I can assure you.” – Theresa May #nrpol #brexit Klikkaa ja Twiittaa

The UK will leave behind it a power vacuum in the EU. The Visegrad countries (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia) as well as Benelux have visibly stepped up their coordination on EU matters. Just like the Nordic EU countries, these aforementioned countries will lose an ally in the European Union when the United Kingdom leaves. Brexit could be the incitement needed for a deepened Nordic coordination on common topics within the EU. As Prime Minister Theresa May said in her address: “…there will be a strong Nordic voice in the EU Council when the United Kingdom has left – I can assure you”.

However, this is not up to the British Prime Minister to determine. Nordic cooperation in the EU requires first and foremost the political will of the Nordic governments to seek the added-value of such cooperation.

What is the Nordic Council?
The Nordic Council is the official body for formal inter-parliamentary cooperation among Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Aland. The Council was formed in 1952 and consists of 87 Members of Parliament. The Nordic Council’s plenary sessions are held twice a year and are attended by the Nordic Prime Ministers and other ministers.

TEXT Matilda af Hällström

PHOTO Stortinget

The author works as an advocate for Nordic cooperation in Brussels. She holds a master’s degree in Political History and has studied in St Andrews, Paris and Helsinki.

Tagit: Brexit, nordic council, nordic countries Kategoriat: Artikkelit, Brexit, Nostot
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