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20th Feb 2019

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Obama brings together Nordic leaders

  • Nordic flags in Washington - in alphabetic order. (Photo: EUobserverver)

Five Nordic countries are to sign a joint statement to bring Sweden and Finland closer to their Nato-member Nordic neighbours.

The initiative was launched by US president Barack Obama. The paper will be signed at the end of a US-Nordic leaders’ summit in the White House in Washington on Friday (13 May).

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  • The White House Kitchen Garden is delivering spring onions, tarragon and chives as well as micro lettuces for the State dinner (Photo: EUobserverver)

"By standing together like this, they dare to do it”, Denmark’s foreign minister Kristian Jensen said ahead of the event.

The White House has hosted 11 such state visits since Obama became president in 2008.

“It’s an honour”, said one Nordic diplomat about the visit.

The US initiative is designed to return a favour after Nordic leaders flocked to see Obama in Sweden in 2013.

”These countries punch above their weight,” said Charles Kupchan, the European affairs adviser in the National Security Council, the US president’s team of foreign advisers.

”If you ask, who is out there to contribute to the public good, the Nordic countries are right on top of the list and that’s why we are honouring them with a state dinner,” he said.

With just a few months left in office, Obama is also building his legacy.

He was the first African-American president in US history. He recently ended a decades-old cold war with Cuba. He has also announced a symbolic visit to Hiroshima, in Japan, where the US in 1945 launched the world’s first nuclear attack.

"The meeting is historic and is a clear indication of how the US administration looks at the Nordics," said Dagfinn Hoeybraaten, the secretary general of the Nordic Council of Ministers.

"There are important Nordic solutions … on current global challenges such as climate change and sustainable development," he said.

Nordic secret

The Nordic Council, like EU institutions, originates from the 1950’s, when it was set up to strengthen cooperation after the WWII. But unlike the EU, it has no supranational powers over its member states.

The combined population of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Aaland (an autonomous archipelago of Finnish islands) is just 27 million.

But the region tops rankings on issues such as quality of life, women’s rights, transparency, rule of law and the environment. It is also home to global firms like Ikea and Nokia.

What’s their secret?

Perhaps that’s what Obama wants to find out by inviting them to the White House.

The Nordic countries do not have one leader and take part in different international alliances.

Iceland, Norway and Denmark are Nato members. Sweden and Finland are non-aligned but have shown growing interest in closer relations with Nato after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Norway and Finland have 1,500 km borders with Russia.

”We share the concerns of countries in the region, particular those with a border with Russia about the increasing presence of Russian military assets in the area," Obama adviser Kupchan said.

Nordics and Nato

"We are concerned about the provocative actions that Russian aircraft and naval vessels have taken and we will be discussing ways to enhance the security in the region at large," he said.

”The Nordic region is a core interest of the United States”, he said:

He noted that Finland and Sweden aren’t covered by Nato’s mutual defence cause. But he added: ”Sweden and Finland may not be members of Nato, but they are about as close as you can get without being a member. They are what we call ‘enhanced oppportunity partners’.”

In other areas, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden joined the EU at different times. But only Finland uses the euro, Norway has avoided EU membership.

”It’s almost ironic that it takes an Obama to bring the Nordic countries together,” one source commented.

The guests in Washington also represent different political families.

Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg, Iceland’s Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson and Finland’s president Sauli Niinisto are conservatives.

Sweden’s prime minister, Stefan Loefven, is a social democrat, while Denmark’s Lars Loekke Rasmussen is liberal.

On the eve of the US visit, Denmark announced that it was set to sign a contract with American Lockheed Martins for 27 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

The contract, worth €7.5 billion, is the biggest ever signed by a Danish premier.

End of Arctic oil?

Prior to the summit it also emerged that major gas and oil firms are pulling out of the Arctic area.

Shell, Eni, Statoil, and ConocoPhillips all decided against paying to hold their drilling rights in recent weeks.

They also declined to pay the US government to renew licences by 1 May, according to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the environmental group Oceana.

Michael LeVine, the senior regional counsel for Oceana, said that after spending "billions of dollars" on Arctic campaigns, energy companies may be realising the risks aren't worth the reward.

"Hopefully, it marks the end of the ecologically and economically risky push to drill in the Arctic Ocean," he said in a statement.

This is good news for the Nordics, since much of their territory - both on land and at sea falls in the Arctic circle.

The state dinner on Friday evening will be held in a tent. The US first couple has in any case a homely Nordic style, with Michelle Obama known for growing her own vegetables.

The menu will also have a Nordic flavour, with the The White House Kitchen Garden serving spring onions, tarragon, chives and micro lettuces.

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