Nordic countries: Similar but different

Inmigration policies, size of their economies and the position towards the EU are some of the differences among the Nordic countries, explains AU’s professor.

By Marcel van Hattem

“(The Scandinavian region) is becoming increasingly agnostic or with atheistic population”, said Thorsten Borring. Photo: Marcel van Hattem

“(The Scandinavian region) is becoming increasingly agnostic or with atheistic population”, said Thorsten Borring. Photo: Marcel van Hattem

In all international indices of well-being and wealth, the European countries of the north are at the top. In one of such most recent rankings, annually published by the Legatum Institute and Forbes Magazine, Norway, Denmark and Sweden are again in the first three positions. Finland comes soon after, seventh in the ranking that measures, among other things, quality of education, governance and entrepreneurship and includes 142 countries.

Despite this coincidence and geographical proximity, the Nordic countries hold large differences.  One politically very noticeable: while Denmark, Sweden and Finland are EU members, only the last country adopted the euro as its currency. Sweden and Denmark continue with their crowns, while Norway and Iceland are not even EU members. In Norway, in fact, 80 per cent of the population is against the country’s entry into the European Union, according to recent opinion polls. The official decision of not belonging to the EU was taken by the country’s population already in 1994: 52.2 per cent said they did not want to enter EU in a referendum in which almost 90 per cent of the population voted.

“These countries have common roots and various cultural aspects that are identical, like Protestantism,” teaches the Danish historian and expert on the subject, Thorsten Borring Olesen. “But they also have many differences: their geography and languages, to begin with, are different in all of them”, said the professor in an interview at his office on the fifth floor of the Faculty of History of Aarhus University.

Borring Olesen, 55, is Jean Monnet professor of the department of Culture and Society, School of History. He has nearly 70 publications throughout his career, and in “The Sonderweg [peculiar way] toward Nordic Europe: A History of Integration From a Northern Perspective”, the historian discusses European integration from the Nordic viewpoint.

MvH:  What are the similarities between these countries?

OLESEN: First, they all share their histories. The region was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Balkans of Europe: there was war at any time between the nation states we know today and, eventually, Denmark and Sweden ended with very small territories. Denmark lost Iceland, northern Norway and part of Germany, for example (the region of Schleswig-Holstein), while Sweden became the most important European empire in the seventeenth century, but later lost Finland to Russia.

Secondly, after all this time of war, there was a joint decision of collaboration between countries. Since the eighteenth century even a monetary union was established in the region [between 1873 and 1924]. It did not survive the first decade after World War I, unfortunately. Even by the standards of today, its engine was very advanced and highly credible, besides being backed by gold.

Thirdly, during and after this period of close collaboration, numerous professional associations have emerged in the region: lawyers, women’s leagues, professionals in general – the associations flourished in all societies simultaneously and were extremely strong.

And, of course, the religious aspect in these countries is another essential similarity: they all are Protestant nations, and Lutheranism is the most important religion.

MVH: Today, however, they are becoming countries where the practice of religion is dwindling.

OLESEN: True, it is a region that is becoming increasingly agnostic or with atheistic population. Yet Lutheranism is predominant throughout the region. Here in Denmark, where the Lutheran Church is the official church of the state, every citizen pays taxes directly to the Church. He needs to declare non-Lutheran himself to the authorities if he wants to be exempted of such payment, which guarantees him basic celebrations: baptism, marriage, burial, for example. And there is still significant growth in the number of Muslims as a consequence of migration processes.

MVH: Immigration Control in the region is known as one of the most strict among the signatories of the Schengen Treaty. 

OLESEN: There is an actual control at our borders, indeed [referring to Denmark]. But also the Germans have increased their borders’ control, for example, with Poland. In the TV there are many programs addressing the issue of illegal immigrants: many are trafficked inside countries.

MVH: But there are differences between the treatment of immigrants in different countries?

OLESEN: There are many. There are different attitudes of governments and Nordic societies in relation to immigration and multiculturalism. Sweden, of all nordic countries, is the most liberal, while the most restrictive to the entrance of immigrants is Denmark.

MVH: When it comes to the wealth of nations, is there much difference?

OLESEN: By far Norway is the richest: the country has huge reserves of oil and a sovereign wealth fund that is very important. So much so that there is a huge debate in the country at the time, asking the government to increase the use of these resources in the funding of social spending. But the government has remained opposed to on the grounds of not generating inflation and stating that oil will end one day.

MVH: Regarding the European Union, what is the perceived difference in approach between the Scandinavian nations?

OLESEN: Since forever, also because of its geographic location, Denmark has always been closer to the European Union. It is the only country that is member of the EU since the 1970s [1973]. Sweden and Finland joined only in 1995, while the Norwegian people said no to the EU one year before. Finally, only Finland is a member of the Eurozone, having decided to adopt the euro currency in 2002.

MvH: And Iceland? Is it part of Scandinavia or is it not?

OLESEN: That is why we call them the “Nordic” countries, when we include Iceland. Their territory once belonged to Norway and also to Denmark, but it is an independent state since 1918. In 2009, it applied for membership to the European Union as well.

MvH: The use of the term Scandinavia is misleading to refer to the country, then?

OLESEN: Actually, I always speak of the Nordic countries. The term Scandinavia comes from a small town in southern Sweden, Scania, very important regionally in the past, but that never represented all five countries.

MvH: The entire region is known for its state of well-being (welfare state), high Human Development Index and quality of life. Why is that?

OLESEN: Because of the taxes, and the tax collection system. It is absolutely universal, everyone has to pay. And no one escapes – the tax due is debited from the salary of the employee by the employer and he has no way of not declaring it. Therefore, the tax due is not connected to the market, as in other countries.

MvH: And what makes people accept such high taxes? [The tax burden can easily reach 60% in the region].

OLESEN: The answer is the very high degree of social cohesion. As said before, the associative culture remains in the population and there is a great sense of belonging to the state, of sharing. We are a close-knit society, unlike what we see in the countries in the south of Europe. If you go to Italy or Greece, you will see people complaining about the government all the time, yelling at the state. It’s a feeling of “us versus the State,” “us and them”. Here it is different: the feeling is “we are the state.” In the Nordic countries, the state is intertwined with the society.

MvH: Immigrants who come here with a different culture in relation to the payment of taxes are a problem in this regard?

OLESEN: Absolutely. Many – not all, I must say – benefit from the state of social welfare, they use everything they have right to according to the law, and use tricks to try to circumvent the system both when they are to receive benefits and when they pay taxes. This is an increasing problem.


“There are different attitudes of governments and Nordic societies in relation to immigration and multiculturalism”, said Borring. In the image a Romanian beggar in Oslo, Norway. Photo: Marcel van Hattem

MvH: Returning to the European Union, which do you consider to be the Danish opinion about it?

OLESEN: That we should continue exactly as we are.

MvH: That is, without the euro?

OLESEN: Yes, without the euro. In 2000 the country decided to keep the Danish krone. Especially with all this crisis, there is no discussion at the present time about joining the euro zone. Depending on future developments, it may be that this will change later, but certainly not at this right moment.

MvH: And the previous experience of the single currency that the country had with the rest of the region?

OLESEN: If the euro had had the same principle of the Nordic monetary union before the First World War, we would be in better shape today in the continent.

MvH: It should serve as an example for Europe?

OLESEN: I have no doubt. It was a monetary union based on economic principles, backed by gold. The euro and the European Union are broader institutions in political terms. This is proving to be a major problem for its continuity. Moreover, cultural differences affect much: southern Europeans are not used to paying taxes while the north pays all on time. How to reconcile these two worlds?

MvH: Apparently the anti-Europe sentiment in the Nordic countries is increasing …

OLESEN: It is, indeed. Especially here in Denmark, well above average compared to Sweden or Finland

MvH: I noticed that many cars here in Denmark, about 80 per cent, do not have the symbol of the European Union on their license plates. In other EU countries, they almost all do.

OLESEN: Ah, yes. But that is because of legislation. The option to place the EU-flag has only been available from 2010. I bought a car in 2009 and it has not the symbol of the EU. There was no way to make this option then.

MvH: What about now, is it optional or mandatory?

OLESEN: It is optional now.

MVH: And there are still people who choose not to put it?

OLESEN: Yes, quite a few. My personal estimates are that about 25% choose not to put.

MvH: Would that be an anti-Europe feeling?


MvH: How about football, are there many differences between the Nordic countries?

OLESEN: (Laughs) It is only a matter of checking the Fifa rankings. We (the Danes) are the best.


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