Is success of Nordic brand ruining Nordic cooperation?

This blog post problematises Nordic cooperation and the Nordic Council of Ministers in the time leading up to their annual sessions 1.-4. November.

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The logo of the Nordic Council of Ministers. Source: Magnus Fröderberg/norden.org.

The annual meetings of the Nordic Council in the beginning of November are set to become unusually stormy. On the agenda is for example the lack of coordination during the pandemic and the decisions to impose the first intra-Nordic border restrictions since the 1950s, but surprisingly enough it is actually the budgetary discussions that are will raise most controversy. This is likely to be the first time since the 1980s that the parliamentarians in the Nordic Council (NC) will refuse to approve the budget of the governments represented by the Nordic Council of Ministers (NCM).

Picture of Johan Strang. Source: The University of Helsinki.

The background to the disagreement is the NCMs Vision 2030 which proclaims to make the Nordic region “the most sustainable and integrated region in the world”. Admirable as it sounds, the vision has raised protest as it is being implemented by slicing up to 20 per cent from the budget for culture, education and research. Among those facing cuts are the Nordic culture points in Helsinki and Reykjavik, the Nordic job exchange programme for young people Nordjobb, the emerging authors’ seminars at Biskops Arnö, and the co-Nordic research-funding instrument NordForsk.

This is not the first time that these institutions and networks are threatened. During recent decades, the NCM has repeatedly sought to shift funds from institutional cooperation and grassroots networks towards top-down political projects as part of a struggle to find purpose and legitimacy for the NCM in a period increasingly dominated by the EU. After 1995, leading politicians lost their interest in Nordic cooperation and the NCM faded into the margins of the political discussion.

In the early 2000s, with the success of the Nordic countries in the global ranking game, the NCM discovered branding as a means of reclaiming some prominence in a neoliberal age. In her largely ignored dissertation, Anna Kharkina has shown how the 2006 Mandag Morgen-report Norden som global vinderregion was of special significance in redefining the purpose of the NCM towards branding the region based on a set of purportedly distinctive values of the region. In the wake of this report, the NCM launched various programmes promoting New Nordic Food, Nordic Cool, the Nordic perspective, and so on.

The rise of the Nordic brand has undoubtedly brought political interest and attention to “the Nordic”, but it has also changed the discourse on Nordicness. This transformation is what I am analysing together with Jani Marjanen and Mary Hilson in our forthcoming book Contesting Nordicness from Scandinavianism to the Nordic brand. What makes the branding discourse different from the Scandinavist rhetoric or from Cold War Nordicity is that it does not include an ambition to bring the region together. “The New Nordic” refers to an attribute of excellence, rather than to a community construed through cooperation.

Doing so, the New Nordic-rhetoric risks pulling the Nordic countries apart. With the rise of the Nordic brand, we have become very interested in the Nordic element of our own nations and societies, but this interest is seldom coupled with an interest in the other Nordic countries. Indeed, sometimes we even feel that our neighbours are “Nordic” in the wrong way, if they have chosen to tackle school lunches, immigration, the climate crisis or the pandemic differently. At worst, the branding discourse might even serve xenophobic and racist purposes by reviving and bolstering ideas of a primordial, innate and genetic Nordicness.

There are good reasons to presume that Vision 2030 is yet another branding programme, designed to legitimise the NCM by promoting the region as progressive on climate issues. So far, it has included little in terms of concrete proposals for climate cooperation and the plans for scrapping key instruments for cooperation in other policy sectors speaks loud and clear.

However, the border closures and the lack of Nordic cooperation during the pandemic has served as a wake-up call for many nordists and apparently also for the parliamentarians in the Nordic Council. It seems as if they are finally starting to realise that the main task of the Nordic Council of Ministers is to facilitate Nordic cooperation, rather than to promote the New Nordic brand.

/University of Oslo Public Release. This material from the originating organization/author(s) may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).View in full here.