Today the leaders of the five Nordic states are meeting to discuss the possibility of creating a Nordic federal state. Ever since the Kalmar Union of the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden – reaching to Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Shetland and Orkney – collapsed in 1523, the idea of reinstating some sort of a supra-national Nordic state regularly crops up. Now this old idea has resurfaced in a book the Swedish history professor Gunnar Wetterberg submitted to the Nordic Council in Reykjavik today.
Wetterberg argues that together the Nordics (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, with the three micro territories the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Aland), will be stronger and more stable and prosperous than they are on their own. After Sweden and Finland joined Denmark in the European Union in 1995, leaving Norway and Iceland in the European Free Trade Association (Efta) (and within the European Economic Area, which brings them in to the European internal market), the Nordic Council has been in search of renewed purpose. Over the last 15 years the cracks have become ever more obvious in Nordic co-operation: it has been downgraded to cover soft policy issues such as culture, while economics and other hard policy has been transferred to the European level.
With a joint government and a parliament based on a common constitution, the federal Nordic state should concentrate on foreign policy and defence, the economy and the labour-market, and research, leaving most other policy areas to the regional authorities in Copenhagen, Helsinki, Oslo, Reykjavik and Stockholm. Wetterberg compares his Nordic federation to the Swiss model and links it with the creation of the UK, France, Spain, Germany and Italy, which he claims developed from a similar situation as the one now found in the Nordics. This Nordic state would have 25 million inhabitants and, because of its wealth, would be one of the larger economies in Europe, equalling that of Spain. Its economic size would secure the federation an influential seat at the G20.
The discussion on a possible federation speaks directly to the fierce debate on Europe still raging in the Nordic states. However culturally and politically homogenous they might be, the Nordics are split on different sides of the EU fence – and while Denmark, Norway and Iceland are founding members of Nato, Sweden and Finland remain neutral. Finland is the only one to have adopted the euro, and Denmark has remained defiant in the face of the continuing changes within the EU and refused to sign up to either the Maastricht treaty or the euro. The Norwegian electorate has twice rejected EU accession. And Iceland only decided to apply for EU membership last year, after the economic crash.
In addition to common European values and identities such as protection of democracy, human rights and being based on Christian heritage within a stable nation state, scholars have also identified a set of joint Nordic values and identities. They include a belief in the welfare state and high taxes, systematic corporatism between government, interested organisations and civil society. These societies are built on Protestant ethics and emphasise equality, with special focus on woman’s rights. Most of them share a similar language, and strong national sentiments can be found in all of them – put more negatively, one can even spot a joint xenophobia. Taking into account this sense of a common cultural space, the apparent difference in foreign policy becomes even more interesting.
A Nordic federation might be feasible from and economic and security perspective but if the debate on Europe tells us anything, it is that all of the Nordics guard their independence fiercely. The EU is a supra-national institution of independent states that have pooled sovereignty in specific, limited areas, but joining in a Nordic state, by definition, would end the independence of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden and create a completely new state. Wetterberg therefore proposes much greater integration than can be found in the wildest dreams of European federalists.
Interestingly, 42% of the inhabitants of the Nordic five support the idea. Ironically, the proposal has even been welcomed by many of the anti-EU movements in the Nordic states. Many of them might see the Nordic state as an alternative to the EU, but Wetterberg actually argues that it should be one of the main pillars within the EU. That would surely be the worst of both worlds for those who believe in independent Nordic states outside of the EU. After a long and hard-fought struggle for independence, Norway and Iceland finally gained sovereignty and independence from Denmark in the early 20th century, and Finland escaped from the Swedes. It’s difficult to see them surrendering to Copenhagen or Stockholm again.
It can, however, be a stimulating academic exercise to speculate about what this Nordic federal state should look like. In that spirit I propose beautiful Stockholm for a capital (the only never conquered by an foreign force), that we all share the Danish royal family (which is mostly German anyhow), that the Scandinavians return to Icelandic (the old Norse) as a common language, that we adopt the Norwegian kroner (with a stake in the large oil fund) and then, finally, bag our troubled past, hand on heart, under the Finnish flag.
Eirikur Bergmann, a professor in political science and director of Centre for European Studies at the Bifrost University in Iceland.