20th Sep 2019

Nordic countries huddle together as world gets bigger

  • Sea chart of Spitsbergen. Kouts: 'Sometimes, when there were bad storms, we sheltered in inland waterways, next to sheer cliffs. It's beautiful - the mountains, the snow' (Photo: Gus MacLeod)

A Nato-style 'musketeer' clause and closer consular co-operation could form part of a new Nordic alliance, foreshadowing future developments inside the EU.

Few people know the High North security environment like Estonian MP Tarmo Kouts. As a junior officer in the Soviet merchant navy in the 1970s, Mr Kouts shipped timber through the Kara Sea and the Barents Sea to Europe. After Estonia gained independence he helped to build its armed forces, rising to the rank of vice admiral, before going into politics. In 2007 he watched reports as a Russian submarine planted a titanium flag on the seabed under the North Pole.

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"This operation was a sign from the Russians. It said: 'We are here. We are the first and it belongs to us.' If we are talking about the Arctic Ocean, they have quite a significant naval capability in Murmansk and in many other points in Arctic waters," he said.

Not from one of the Nordic countries - Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden - Mr Kouts nevertheless backs an initiative by the five states to band together in response to the melting ice caps and the coming race to tap new mineral resources and trade routes.

The Nordic pact was mooted by foreign ministers at a meeting in Reykjavik in November and is to be discussed again in Helsinki in April.

Its blueprint is the Stoltenberg Report, a list of proposals set out in 2009 by Thorvald Stoltenberg, Norway's former foreign minister and defence minister and the father of its current prime minister. The report suggests, among other measures: creating a military and civilian taskforce for unstable regions; a joint amphibious unit; a disaster-response unit; a coastguard-level maritime response force; joint cyber-defence systems; joint air, maritime and satellite surveillance; co-operation on Arctic governance; and a war crimes investigation unit.

It also proposes pooling consular services in places where all five countries do not have missions and adds, in an echo of Nato's "one for all and all for one" Article V, that: "The countries could clarify in binding terms how they would respond if a Nordic country were subject to external attack or undue pressure."

Mr Stoltenberg told EUobserver that his plan is a reaction to major geopolitical changes.

"We live in a world where 'far away' does not exist any more. When I was growing up, you talked about places that are 'far away.' This is no longer a reality ... the problems are bigger than before," he said. "I would not use the word 'compete,' but we must be able to meet our responsibilities," he added, on the challenges of an increasingly ice-free Arctic. "Today we cannot alone meet the need for search and rescue in this area. On the military side, the price of high technology is rising so fast that either we co-operate or we watch the degradation of our defence systems. If we don't co-operate, in 20 years' time we may have just four countries in Europe with credible defence systems - Russia, Germany, France and the UK."

He explained that a Nordic alliance is "natural."

"It's a question of geography, culture, values. We speak the same language. We feel closer to each other than most other people," he said. "There is already a very good co-operation between intelligence services in the Nordic countries. It was like this even in the Cold War. There are close contacts at a personal level. It's an issue of trust, of joint interests."

Mr Stoltenberg noted that even though Finland and Sweden are not Nato members, Nato-type solidarity already exists between the five countries at a tacit level: "Do you believe that if there is an attack on one of the Nordic countries, it is possible to isolate that country? No. If one Nordic country is attacked, it may happen that all the others are involved too."

The Nordic plan has broad support in the local defence industry. "Seen as a common market, the Nordic market would become the fourth largest one in Europe," Henrik Vassallo, a spokesman for Swedish firm Saab, said. "The potential development of a Nordic Technological and Industrial Base needs to be addressed in a more comprehensive way."

Nordic link-up points to EU trends

The Stoltenberg scheme also mirrors developments taking place at EU level.

The European External Action Service is since its launch on 1 December attempting to better co-ordinate EU foreign policy. The European Commission will in a 2011 "Citizenship Report" underline that member states' consulates must help EU citizens if their own country has no mission in place and call for consular "burden-sharing" during crises. Poland in its EU presidency in 2011 is to activate a Lisbon Treaty clause on defence co-operation. UK Prime Minister David Cameron will on 19 January host a meeting of Nordic and Baltic state leaders to discuss energy issues in the High North.

For his part, Finnish foreign minister Alexander Stubb believes that a Stoltenberg-type project could pave the way for new EU defence structures.

"The Nordic countries could promote the pooling and sharing of military resources and capabilities among the EU member states under the Lisbon Treaty," he said. "This would enable the Nordic countries to concentrate on their combined strengths, which they then could offer to be used, for example, in the EU's crisis management operations for the benefit of all. They could also work together for the creation of a permanent operation headquarters for the EU in Brussels."

He added that there is no "gold rush" in the Arctic "for the moment" and that there are limits to Nordic kinship, however.

"In EU policy issues our priorities do vary, something which can be seen every day in Brussels. A Nordic bloc in the EU does not exist ... We exchange ideas and share information, but we do not necessarily always think the same way."

Asked if another recent idea, by Swedish historian Gunnar Wetterberg, to create a United Nordic Federation under the symbolic rule of the Danish royal family, has any legs, he said: "You have to go quite a long time in history to find a period when the Nordic countries were closer to each other than today ... But a federation is not something we are contemplating in the coming years."

Mr Stoltenberg commented: "Personally, I would not be against it - we would have a terrific soccer team. But it's a bit too far away."

The article first appeared in the Nordic Council/Nordic Council of Ministers' online news magazine, Analys Norden


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