People in the Nordic region appreciate the role that border regions play in boosting well-being: they should not be overlooked, because they are of great importance in developing economic, social and cultural relations. For example, the Malmö-Copenhagen region accounts for 25% of Danish and Swedish GDP. Collectively, the Nordic countries represent the 11th biggest economy in the world.
The countries in the Nordic region are linked both culturally and linguistically, share the same values and history and are united by a certain sense of kinship. Added to this are the direct and close relationships between people in the countries. At the individual level there has always been a desire to promote cooperation between the Nordic countries. This is combined with support from the nations’ leaders, whose political decisions have very much fostered cooperation. Examples of this include agreements to avoid double taxation, mutual recognition of educational and professional qualifications, harmonisation of administrative processes and the construction of infrastructure supporting physical movement.
Any cross-border strategy, whatever its focus, is first and foremost about establishing reciprocal trust and a shared, long-term vision – this is at the heart of cooperation. Every decision to move abroad to work or study comes with risks for the individual or company that makes it. Political commitment is needed for people to be prepared to take this risk. Surveys have shown that the Nordic countries place highly in rankings of social trust. Among the Baltic States, Estonia and Lithuania also rank quite highly. Trust therefore exists.
Last year, the prime ministers of the Nordic states signed their names to a vision of regional cooperation at the core of which is a commitment to work towards their countries becoming the most sustainable and most successfully integrated region in the world by 2030. The fact that the leading politicians in the Nordic countries support this vision means a lot. It is a clear signal to those investing in a cross-border future that there is political support for their plans and efforts.
Wendel also described the five-step model of the Nordic Council of Ministers to improve cross-border movement in the region. The first step in the council’s approach is to identify all obstructions to free movement. This is mostly done by ordinary citizens, who can inform the council of such hindrances in person or via digital channels. This information is then verified at the council’s headquarters in Copenhagen. Sometimes complaints are the result of misunderstandings or arise from market differences between the countries. However, when an actual obstruction is identified it is added to a database that anyone can access and study. There are currently between 80 and 100 entries in the database. The council itself also plays an active part in removing obstacles, although to some extent this is due to public pressure to act. A free movement council has been established and charged with the task of selecting specific obstructions from the database and using its networks to eliminate them. In the six years it has been operating it has removed 60 obstructions.
The varying strategies and political decisions implemented during the COVID-19 crisis pose a serious challenge to the Nordic model. It is not so much the crisis itself which has led to uncertainty in border regions, but how the crisis has been dealt with. People are starting to realise that open borders are not something that can be taken for granted. This strikes at the very heart of Nordic cooperation – mutual trust. If we cannot rely on borders remaining open and are unsure whether we still share the same vision of the future, how can we assume that people and companies will plan ahead with these things in mind? For the first time in decades Nordic borders were closed, without warning and without coordination. There was no long-term view; the Nordic perspective was not taken into account. This situation has fuelled uncertainty, and it is those who cross borders who are most sensitive to such uncertainty. Experience shows that cross-border movement has taken a hit – and that people have started to more keenly perceive the risks this brings with it.