Thursday

2nd Dec 2021

Interview

Nato invite sees Nordic states stepping up security cooperation

  • Bertel Haarder is currently chairman of the Nordic Council. He is a liberal Danish politician, and formerly a minister in Copenhagen and MEP (Photo: Johannes Jansson/norden.org)
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Mutual cooperation between the eight Nordic countries for many years avoided security and defence issues - out of respect for Sweden and Finland's non-aligned status.

But times are changing. This year the Nordic Council has asked Nato's secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, to address the annual parliamentarian assembly (2-4 November) in Copenhagen.

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  • Members of the parliaments of Finland, Sweden, Åland, Norway, Denmark, the Faeroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland gather annually for the Nordic Council meeting (Photo: Sara Johannessen / norden.org)

The invitation marks another discreet step towards more security cooperation among the Nordic countries. From not being discussed at all, it has become a main topic.

"Stoltenberg will address us in Copenhagen, when we have the annual session, as now Sweden and Finland are no longer embarrassed to have cooperation with Nato countries", Nordic Council president, Bertel Haarder, told EUobserver in an exclusive interview.

"For Nordic cooperation, the fall of the Soviet Union meant that suddenly we could cooperate not only in culture and domestic affairs but also when it comes to national security", he says.

The Nordic Defence Cooperation (Nordefco) was established in 2009 and has developed "not quickly, but steadily", Haarder says.

As Europe witnesses Nato relations weaken, the need for other structures to safeguard security are growing and the Nordics are slowly taking matters in their own hands.

Haarder says that he asked the Pentagon whether it would be a problem from an US point of view that Nato-members (Denmark, Norway and Iceland) cooperate with the two non-aligned countries (Sweden and Finland).

"The answer was that this is not a problem at all. Quite the contrary. It means a strengthening of the north-flank of Nato and as the civil servant said with a twinkle in his eye: "We get it for free". Because Sweden and Finland are not covered by the [Nato] Article 5, so they get no guarantees...

"Every year we now have a round table conference about the progress of this cooperation. Nordic ministers for defence have decided to deepen their cooperation and hold common drills, we try to help each other when it comes to defence capabilities including cybersecurity, which has become a very important part of our cooperation. It is extremely important for the security of the Nordic countries", Haarder says.

Russia

The elephant in the room is, of course, Russia. How much room for manoeuvre is left for the non-aligned Nordic nations?

A delegation from the Russian parliament, the Duma, is always present at the Nordic Council annual meetings to secure good relations and common trust. But lately signs of tension has emerged.

"We always meet with representatives for north-western Russia, including the Duma, and I think it is very important to keep that window open because whatever we think about the Russian dictatorship we need to communicate with the Russians. So, I am all for that.

"We are however sorry that the Russians call the Nordic offices 'foreign agencies'. We have a Nordic office in St Petersburg but we have scaled it down to almost nothing, because we do not want to be called 'foreign agents'."

For 20 years the Nordic Council had up to 25 people working out of those St Petersburg offices - but reduced activities to just two local staff in 2015, when Russia introduced its concept of a foreign agency registration. The cooperation is now instead organised from the Nordic Council office in Copenhagen.

"We are friendly people who want cultural exchange. We do not want to be called 'foreign agents'. I have talked to the Russian ambassador about it but he has not been able to change it. I also learned that our secretary general has talked in Moscow about it, but she was not able to change it either", Haarder says.

Will you bring it up when you meet the Duma representatives in the frames of the Nordic Council meeting in November, EUobserver asked?

"Definitively", he says.

Another topic for discussion with the Russians will be rising gas prices. The Nordic countries are net exporters of energy just like Russia.

"I am sure Mr Putin enjoys the rising prices and the rest of us are looking forward to become totally independent of him. We are almost independent of Islamic fanatics in the Middle East [on oil]. The next step is to become independent of Mr Putin [on gas]", Haarder says.

The Arctic

Much of the Arctic land mass and seas belong to the Nordic region, and the Nordic countries are heavily involved in issues that concern this unique part of the world. The European Union also wants to play a bigger role in the Arctic area.

The European Commission in October presented a new EU Arctic strategy. It proposes membership for the EU in the Arctic Council and the opening of an EU representation in Nuuk, Greenland.

"If you ask me, both are good ideas, but I am not speaking for the Nordic Council here. It is very important that the EU takes an interest in cooperation in the Arctic.

"It is important because the Arctic is becoming more-and-more important in a lot of areas: environment, sea-traffic and, above all, security. The waters between Greenland and Iceland and the UK are, in fact, in many ways Danish, Faroese and Greenland waters, so it is highly relevant for us."

Would we then have the EU decide policies in the Arctic area on behalf of its member states?

"We have agreed that Greenland and Denmark are equal partners when it comes to areas of common interest. If something is mainly a matter for Greenland then Greenland might even sit in the chair. That has been decided. And I think that will strengthen what we call the kingdom of Denmark.

"My idea about the kingdom is that we should reformulate what it is about, so that it becomes clear that the kingdom consists of three separate countries, who have decided to solve some important problems together. That is how it should be seen. That is not what is in the constitution, but that is how we should behave. Because it is allowed to behave as if we were three separate countries, who solve problems together".

What is the Nordic council good for – who is benefitting from it?

"The benefit of the Nordic Council is that we have an ongoing dialogue between politicians from all the eight Nordic countries. That has value in itself. And we exploit the fact that from the Middle Ages we have had a common culture and still have. You might ask if the Finns are not a bit different from the old Vikings? But the truth is no, they are very much part of the Nordic family. Our welfare states are very much alike.

"There was an exhibition, Nordic Cool, in John F. Kennedy Center in Washington [in 2013]. The curator, Alicia Adams, said after the exhibition that for two years she had been looking for differences between the Nordic countries. She had found none.

"Over 90 percent of all people living in the Nordic countries are very happy about Nordic cooperation and 60 percent or more want more of it and only one percent want less of it, so there is a massive vote in favour of Nordic cooperation.

"I am sometimes embarrassed that we politicians do not live up to that expectation. It's lack of engagement.

"The problem is that Nordic cooperation has been so successful and everybody is for it so there are no conflicts and therefore there are no headlines in the newspapers. It makes people think it is not important.

"But I so much wish that Nordic ministers would always talk together before they go to meetings in the EU. Because if the Nordics can agree, then there is high probability that all of Europe will take the Nordic solution.

"We are respected for being pragmatic and for having well-functioning countries. When we have ideas to run a certain part of the European Union then there is a high probability it will have an influence. It is not a coincidence that the EU has an Ombudsman and that the first European Ombudsman was Jacob Söderman from Finland.

"Thanks to him the administrative habits in the EU Commission changed from being those from Paris to be much more like those from the Nordic countries".

Would you recommend Nordic Council-style assemblies in other parts of Europe?

"When I visited Serbia the deputy chairman of the Serbian parliament in Beograd, Gordana Čomić said: We in the Balkans always look at our differences. And we are always reminded of our conflicts. You, in the Nordic countries, you are aware of what you have together and how you can work together".

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