What unites and divides the Nordic countries?

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Anne Grietje Franssen - [email protected]
What unites and divides the Nordic countries?
The Nordic Council in 2019. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Since the onset of the pandemic, the idea of a 'Nordic unity' has been difficult to sustain. Why do we speak of Northern Europe as a separate entity and, if these countries are so similar, what explains the divergences in approach to the coronavirus crisis?


Mankind tends to categorise the world into manageable units. One such category is the Nordic region or Scandinavia (which are not the same, with the term Scandinavia covering Denmark, Sweden and Norway, while the Nordic countries also include Finland, Iceland, Greenland, Åland and the Faroe Islands).

Politicians and other public figures around the world speak about Scandinavian prosperity, Nordic well-being, Scandinavian design, the Scandinavian social democracy, the Nordic model.

These generalisations can be practical, but at what point do they no longer suffice?

Opposing approaches to the pandemic

Since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, this assumption of a Northern European homogeneity has been particularly difficult to sustain. The differences in pandemic-specific policies within this imagined community of the North could hardly have been greater.

Denmark closed its borders, schools, cafes, restaurants, shopping centres, and prohibited outside gatherings exceeding ten people. Similarly, in Norway and Finland only the most essential facilities remained accessible, while the majority of children and employees were ordered to stay at home. Finland closed its most populous region, while Norway enforced a two-week quarantine for anyone crossing its border. Disobedience resulted in high fines.

Meanwhile Sweden chose a different route. Initially only events of over 500 people were cancelled; by late March this number was reduced to 50 before the government opened to raising the limit to 300 for certain seated events this month. But for private gatherings, there is no specified limit beyond a binding recommendation to avoid "large" events.

Sweden's strategy was – and is – based on voluntary measures and individual responsibility: if everyone would keep their distance, wash their hands, and stay at home when having the slightest symptoms, then schools, bars, restaurants and shops could more or less continue business as usual.


"Doesn't Sweden take the corona crisis seriously?" headlined the Danish newspaper Politiken in March. Denmark's prime minister Mette Fredriksen urged her citizens not to go on a skiing holiday to the neighbouring country.

The fact that Sweden chose a different strategy from its neighbours is often attributed to the independence of government agencies such as the Public Health Agency, which in Sweden determined the coronavirus policy to a much larger extent than the country's politicians. The state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has been the figurehead during the entire pandemic – not, as in much of the rest of Europe and the Nordic region, the head of government.

Tegnell explained that his policy of 'epidemic suppression' – containing the spread of the virus enough to deal with the number of patients – is based on the available science. And although he admitted that there were too many casualties in care homes where more measures should have been taken to prevent the spread of infections, Tegnell claimed that there is no hard evidence that a lockdown would have made a big difference.

The stricter, more prohibitive approaches in Denmark and Norway, he said in an interview with The Local Sweden, were not necessarily scientifically substantiated. "It think it's political," Tegnell said. "If it's an overreaction, or if it's an adequate reaction, we will not know until afterwards."

Both the Swedish public health authority and the government have repeatedly emphasised that the pandemic is a 'marathon, not a sprint', and that the existing measures have been designed with this in mind. They must be sustainable over a long period of time. The psychological burden of a lockdown would, according to this argument, be as much a risk to public health as is the virus itself.

Still, the question remains: why is Sweden in this respect so different from its neighbours?

In order to dissect the differences between the Northern European countries, it seems reasonable to start by tracing the concept of ​​a northern unity. Why is the Nordic region often regarded as a single entity?

Map from 1680. Photo: Berit Roald/NTB scanpix/TT

The answer to that question depends on the perspective you take, says Johan Strang, associate professor of political science and intellectual history at the Center for Nordic studies, which is part of the University of Helsinki.

"From a historical point of view, you can trace Norden [the North] as a separate region to however far back you want to go," he tells The Local. One possible starting point is the reformation and the foundation of the Lutheran state churches, resulting in a partial homogenisation of northern society and culture.

'Make Scandinavia great again'

Approached from a diplomatic angle, however, the Nordics could hardly be regarded as a unity until more recent times; Sweden and Denmark were two competing empires. They found themselves in constant conflict over Northern Europe and the Baltic Sea region. According to Strang, the two states fought a 'record number' of wars.

A distinct starting point for homogenisation, or unification, began with Pan-Scandinavianism, a movement originating in the 19th century that focused on promoting a shared Scandinavian past, a shared cultural heritage and a common linguistic tradition.

The Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s had torn Northern Europe apart: Finland had become part of Russia and Norway now belonged to Sweden. As Strang puts it: "The Scandinavian movement had the intention: make Scandinavia great again."

The Northern states had failed to either form a military or an economic union, but instead aimed at a cultural unity.

"From that moment on, the unification process accelerated," explains Strang. "The northern countries established the Nordic Council in 1952 and opened up their borders. The region had its own little club in the League of Nations and the Nordic codes of law were partly homogenised. The countries often copied each other's best practices, whether in the social, economic, judicial or political realm. Denmark and Sweden decided to bury the hatchet and became best friends instead."

The Nordic Museum in Stockholm. Photo: Ali Lorestani/TT

'All of the Nordics are misfits'

Back to the present day. The divergencies in administrative traditions – which in Sweden resulted in Anders Tegnell and the Public Health Agency being at the helm, whereas in Norway, Denmark and Finland it has been the government primarily taking the lead – can, according to Strang, be linked to historical differences in governance between the Danish and Swedish empires.

"Finland and Sweden traditionally had relatively small ministries and autonomous, administrative bodies. In Norway and Denmark politicians have had more direct influence on the policy-making process."

The fact that Finland has had such a different coronavirus strategy from Sweden – with the public health authority certainly having a seat at the table, but Prime Minister Sanna Marin ultimately taking the lead – might have to do with its more recent past. The country's war history is very much embedded in the collective memory. Finland waged a civil war at the start of the 20th century and fought against the Soviet Union and later the Third Reich during the Second World War. Finland remains wary of neighbouring Russia.

"The lesson Finland learned was that, as long as everyone follows the orders of the state, everything will be fine. The Finnish people expect the government to act promptly and decisively. The state is also better prepared when it comes to emergency supplies. In Sweden, this degree of crisis preparedness is lacking," Strang said.

Yet the above distinction in administrative traditions is an unsatisfactory explanation for the stark contrast between Sweden's corona strategy and that of its neighbours. Has Sweden always been an exception within Northern Europe?

"The Nordic model is a model of great exceptions," Strang says. "In that respect, all of the northern countries are misfits."


The researcher chuckles in defining the Nordic region as "a group of countries that all have a complex relationship with Sweden". "For us Finns, Sweden is our closest neighbour to whom we tend to compare ourselves. Something similar applies to Norway – they also share a culture. The Danes are Sweden's former arch enemies. We all have our special link to Sweden, yet Swedes are not nearly as interested in us as we are in them. That's why we tend to joke about them; how paternalistic they are, how authority abiding, how arrogant."

In Denmark in particular, Swedes have a reputation for being extremely compliant. According to a Danish idiom, if the public health authority prescribes five slices of bread a day, Swedes will eat five slices of bread a day. Swedes, or so the stereotype goes, blindly trust the state in knowing what is best for them.

This trust in authorities might also explain why there seem to be few domestic opponents to the Swedish Sonderweg, as it has become known in Germany ('special path'); the fact that the country adopts such a different coronavirus strategy has seldom generated critical questions or a public outcry.

Simultaneously, Strang says, approaching the coronavirus crisis in such a different manner to the rest of Europe requires a great deal of self-confidence on the part of the state.

Scandinavian flags. Photo: Erik Johansen/TT

'Swedish self-confidence or arrogance'

That confidence is much more prevalent in Sweden than in the other Nordic countries, according to Strang. The neighbouring nations can be characterised by a 'small-state mentality' in generally following the example of other, bigger states.

"Explaining this Swedish self-confidence, or arrogance if you will, is one of the most difficult and exciting topics for philosophers and historians with an interest in the Nordic region."

His own theory is one of temporality:

"During the second half of the 20th century, Sweden was the richest nation in Europe, and was praised for its progressive social welfare system. Others looked to Sweden as the society of the future and strove to copy their model. But if Sweden is the future, this argument goes, then looking at other countries is, for Swedes, like looking into the past. That is why policymakers aren't too bothered about what their international colleagues do. 'The others will at some point realise that we were right after all', is the idea."

The other Nordic countries all love Sweden, Strang says: "We look up to you."

Yet he is discerning a gradual shift that originates about a decade ago. "Since the refugee crisis and now, with the pandemic, the previously undisputed Swedish model is being questioned. Sweden offers less of a utopian and more of a dystopian future to a growing number of Nordic residents," he continues.

"Many in Denmark and Norway find Sweden too liberal. Too naive in opening its borders to immigrants, too naive in its handling of the coronavirus crisis. Sweden's neighbours were all little brothers who looked up to their one, big brother. Now they are little brothers who no longer know whose example to follow."

Survey results from a YouGov poll this summer showed that 73 percent of Norwegians and 61 percent of Danes thought it imperative to keep Swedish tourists out. More so than, for example, visitors from Spain, Italy or the UK.


The future for the Nordics

Will the disagreements that have arisen during the pandemic have a lasting effect on Northern European relations?

Yes and no, Strang believes.

"On a political and social level, these disputes will probably not last very long. Nordic politicians will shake hands and get on with their day-to-day tasks. Families living on both sides of the border will simply resume their lives," he says.

"But what worries me is the border policy that we have started to dabble with, both in the Nordic region and in the rest of Europe. Norden has had a passport union since the 1950s, much earlier than the EU's introduction of free movement of people and goods.

"Until the refugee crisis our northern passport union didn't pose any problems, but in recent years there has been a continuous establishing and lifting of border controls in the North. And this could, in fact, lead to a more permanent damage in International relations. Would you still apply for a job, organise a cultural event or invest in a company in a border region? Probably not."

This border policy might, in the short term, result in Norwegians selling their Swedish summer houses and Danes moving away from Malmö and back to Copenhagen, to name a few examples, warns Strang.

"The principle of a Nordic unity has always been closely linked to the passport union. It was the greatest achievement of the Northern European cooperation. What will remain of this unity when the borders close? In Europe, closed borders primarily translate to an end to free trade. In the north, it might mean the end of our mutual trust."

It is this trust that Strang says makes the Nordic countries so unique: "It's an example the EU could benefit from: Northern Europe has connected people, not economies."



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