A politician from the Faroe Islands tells a joke.
“What’s the difference between the Nordic Council and a camel?”
“A camel can work for a week without eating or drinking. But the Nordic Council can eat and drink for a week, and not do any work”.
This week the Council has been holding it’s 69th session in Helsinki. It brought together parliamentarians from Finland, Åland, Sweden, Denmark, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Norway and Iceland; as well as Prime Ministers and policy experts.
Conceived in a time long before Finland was part of the EU, the Nordic Council looks to have become somewhat sidelined. With no legislative powers, and no remit to discuss some of the most pressing multilateral issues of the day like foreign and security policy, it looks like a forum for talking, with not much action. Although they do give out cultural prizes for music, films and literature every year.
And the whole organisation is notoriously bureaucratic, a complaint you’ll hear from politicians across the region.
“When you have an organisation with bureaus and committees and so on, they are having meetings all the time. So the organisation is pushing the wheel for itself. It’s typical for all permanent organisations” says former Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (Centre) who has attended many Nordic Council meetings.
But experts say there is still value to the work the Nordic Council undertakes, despite the red tape, and lack of foreign and security policy discussions.
Eeva Innola, a Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs FIIA says that even though other organisations like the EU, NATO or the NB8 group of Nordic and Baltic Prime Ministers (who also met in Helsinki this week) are tackling more strategic topics, there is still a relevance for the Nordic Council “especially as a value-based regional community, and as a forum for dialogue between the Nordic States. Even though I’ve understood that the structures are sometimes considered as heavy” she says.
One of the most high profile – and symbolic – issues the visiting parliamentarians discussed this week in Helsinki highlights the bureaucratic snail’s pace of some work at the Nordic Council.
For decades, only Swedish, Danish and Norwegian have been official working languages of the Nordic Council. But this year Finland and Iceland were lobbying to get their languages upgraded to official status.
However, no agreement was reached. Only a compromise, which says that Finns or Icelanders can make proposals in their own languages, but that the status of Finnish and Icelandic would be on hold, and looked at again at a future meeting.
One area where the Nordic Council has been positively engaging, is developing and coordinating energy policies across the region.
This week, former Nokia boss Jorma Ollila presented a session to Nordic Council members about the importance of energy policy cooperation, after conducting a two year review of the topic.
“Current research activities, at both Nordic and national level, should be mapped, discussed and aligned” says Ollila in a video presentation.
“The role for research and development for green transition cannot be underestimated […] the goal should be to maintain or increase the share of Nordic exports for green solutions” he says.
Matti Vanhanen, who is the Centre Party’s candidate in the 2018 Finnish presidential election, thinks that the Nordic region is an ideal test bed for energy development and cooperation, and has advantages over the EU in this area.
“I think that the goal should be that we in the Nordic region tax energy, and support renewable energy in the same way” says Vanhanen, explaining that the region is small enough, with similar societies, where it is easier to reach agreement and experiment with unified energy policies – easier than in the more distinct countries of the European Union.
Making a Climate Change Difference
Another area where the Nordic Council has seen effective cooperation is on the environment.
About a decade ago, the council started to become less inward-looking, and started to realise how the Nordic region fitted into the global community, according to Vanhanen.
“We discussed a lot about how we coordinate our policies especially in climate issues. We were five active countries and the Copenhagen climate meeting was coming, and Sweden had the EU Presidency. Around about two years before [Copenhagen] we started to coordinate about how we all send the same signals, and the same message in international work. We tried to turn the focus of Nordic cooperation to what the Nordics represent in global policies” he says.
This cooperation between the five countries attending the UN meeting helped amplify the message from the Nordic region, when they acted together as a block. It was in many ways a watershed moment for the organisation, when it understood the power of collective action, on a global scale.
Future Issues, Expansion?
The Nordic Council will continue to push ahead with coordinating ideas around energy, the environment, education and cultural cooperation.
There’s even a plan to look at introducing a Nordic-wide digital ID system, since citizens already have the right to move around freely and live or work in other Nordic countries.
With cross-border banking and electronic IDs the norm for most people, it could be a common sense move to harmonize the process across the region.
And looking to the future of the organisation, former Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen says that there could be expansion on the cards.
“The three Baltic states would really be willing to join the Nordic Council, so it tells something about the club, when also some outsiders would like to be involved”.