Nordic Council and Nordic Council of Ministers

Organisations exist to facilitate the discussion and coordination of policies in areas of joint interest to the Nordic countries. The Nordic Council fosters co-operation among parliamentarians from member nations and the Nordic Council of Ministers promotes cooperation among government officials. Without power to make laws, these bodies are nevertheless influential and useful instruments for both Nordic cooperation and pursuing Nordic interests outside the region.

A high, oldfashioned tower bullding with a pointy top.
Nordic Council headquarters in Copenhagen. Photo: Yadid Levy/ (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
  • The Nordic Council, established in 1952, fosters co-operation among parliamentarians from its member nations, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, and autonomous territories, Faroe Islands, Greenland and Åland, and meets twice per year. Finland joined in 1955, Faroe Islands and Åland in 1971, and Greenland in 1984.
  • The Nordic Council of Ministers, created in 1971, promotes cooperation among government officials. Copenhagen hosts the headquarters for both but the presidency rotates annually among the members.

The Nordic Council’s philosophy espouses the belief that working together can accomplish more than individual efforts, and they have helped ease various legal restrictions, making it possible for Nordic citizens to more freely travel, reside, work or seek health care in other member countries. The Nordic Council, amongst other things:

  • awards yearly prizes in literature, music and nature and environment;
  • its information office publishes a daily online newsletter, a weekly newsletter and a quarterly journal; and
  • its committees tackle topics in economics, culture, society, and legislation where the Nordic countries might wish to coordinate their policies.

Motivation for a Nordic Council

The Nordic Council grew out of a long history of shared cultural ties among the Nordic countries. As early as the 1920s, members of the Scandinavian parliaments met annually under the auspices of the Northern Inter-Parliamentary Union. In 1938, a forum for the governments of the Nordic countries to discuss and coordinate policies in areas of joint interest was first proposed. This idea gained further momentum after World War II, with a particular interest in closer collaboration on defence and economic policies. However, due to Finland’s alignment with the USSR, and Norway’s desire to join NATO to access arms from the Western powers, the Nordic defence union proposed by Sweden became impossible. Instead, economic, cultural, and transportation issues became the early focus of formal cooperation.

Original structure and early successes

The Nordic Council was founded in 1952 to more formally coordinate existing areas of cooperation by bringing together members of parliament and representatives of the governments of the five Nordic countries. Council members and governments could raise issues and questions for the Council to discuss if they impacted two or more member states. Then, the Council would investigate and debate the issues, and make recommendations for action to the governments - but it would not make or act on decisions itself. It was critical, then as now, for the Nordic nations to maintain their sovereignty, despite their many shared characteristics.

The entire Council met for an annual plenary, and in between sessions, a presidium of one president and four vice presidents (one member from each nation) convened a handful of times to investigate and discuss the issues before the Council. In contrast to the contemporaneous Council of Europe, where parliaments and governments met separately, parliamentarians and ministers met together in the first decades of the Nordic Council, although ministers could take an active part only in the plenary sessions, not the committee meetings, and were not allowed to vote. The plenary sessions were also open to the public, and the notes and documents from these sessions published each year.

Committee on economic cooperation

One of the earliest activities of the Nordic Council was to set up a more permanent, organised study of economic problems in 1954, which led to the formation of a committee on economic cooperation. (Finland later joined this study in 1956, after joining the Nordic Council in 1955.) The governments implemented the Council’s suggestions to create uniform patent laws and a common labour market by, for example, removing work permit requirements between countries.

The Council also investigated the establishment of a common Scandinavian market and customs union, but Norway, Iceland, and Finland were ultimately not interested in this project and it foundered - in part due to its implications for national sovereignty and greater political union, and fear that nations with smaller economies would ultimately suffer. (A second, later attempt in 1968 - the Danish recommendation for a common market called Nordek - also failed.)

Establishing committees on particular issues in 1950s

In the sessions from 1955 to 1957, the Council set up four other committees to tackle the areas of greatest joint concern: social problems, general legislation, cultural matters, and communication and travel. On the social front, the Council recommended allowing any Nordic citizen to access social and medical services in any Nordic country, which was ultimately adopted by the governments. In cultural matters, the Council suggested more unified educational systems and helped to support cultural initiatives by launching the Nordic Cultural Fund in 1966.

In addition to removing barriers to economic cooperation, the Council also facilitated transport and communication among the member countries. For example, its recommendation for a single passport system was adopted early, as were its suggestions of unified postal and telephone rates across the five countries. And as early as the very first session of the Nordic Council, the body explored the feasibility of a bridge or tunnel linking Copenhagen and Malmö. This ultimately became a reality when the Øresund Bridge was finalised in 1999.

The Nordic Council became more formalised from 1960s

The Nordic Council was initially established via mutual agreement among national parliaments. To put the Council on firmer footing, the five member nations ratified the first Helsinki Treaty in 1962, which outlined the role of the Council and its focus areas. These continue to be reflected in more recent versions. The most recent amendments were made in January 1996. Key areas are:

  • Legal cooperation;
  • Cultural cooperation;
  • Social cooperation;
  • Economic cooperation;
  • Cooperation on transport and communications; and,
  • Cooperation in the area of environmental protection;

The Helsinki Treaty did not require specific obligations from the member countries. This was particularly important in light of other international organisations forming at the time, in particular the European Economic Community, that could jeopardise the Nordic Council by duplicating its work or pulling the focus of its members away. In 1971, the treaty was amended to include the autonomous regions of the Faroe Islands and Åland in their respective national delegations. (Greenland was added in 1984.)

Also in 1971, the Nordic Council of Ministers, the official organ for cooperation among the governments of the Nordic countries, was established. This ultimately shifted the role of the Nordic Council, both putting it in conversation with the new body and making it responsible for monitoring the Council of Ministers’ activity. The Councils maintain a close relationship, in contrast to other systems where the government and parliamentary cooperation bodies are more clearly divided.

9 people in corporate clothes standing beside eachother and smiling

Meeting in Stockholm, May 2013. From left to right: Gunnar Gunnarsson, Iceland's Ambassador in Sweden; Marit Nybakk, President of the Nordic Council; Dagfinn Høybråten, General Secretary of the Nordic Council of Ministers;Jens Stoltenberg, Norway's Prime Minister; Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark's Prime Minister; Fredrik Reinfeldt, Sweden's Prime Minister; Camilla Gunell, Chair of Åland's regional government; Aleqa Hammond, Chair of the Greelandic government; Kaj Leo Holm Johannesen, Chair of the regional government on the Faroe Islands. Photo:, (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

The Nordic Council and Nordic Council of Ministers today

Today, the Nordic Council has 87 members, 20 each from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, and seven from Iceland. The autonomous regions are more involved since the adoption of the 2007 Åland document, which described their roles in more detail. Appended to this document, each of the autonomous regions made arguments for having the ability to participate fully and vote in the the Council. However, their attempts to become full members of the Council have not been successful.

Key activities:

1. Meetings

The Nordic Council meets twice annually, for an ordinary session and a theme session.

In recent years topics tackled have included democracy under pressure and freedom of movement. Areas of focus today include maintaining the traditional welfare state, environment and climate change, and globalisation. Some areas of collaboration that have not been the focus of Nordic cooperation in the modern era, such as joint defence, have also been considered.

2. Committees, Institutions, and Centers

The active committees of the Nordic Council bear a strong resemblance to the originally established committees. They include:

  • the Committee for Knowledge and Culture in the Nordic Region;
  • the Committee for a Sustainable Nordic Region;
  • the Committee for Growth and Development in the Nordic Region; and,
  • the Committee for Welfare in the Nordic Region.

The Nordic Council of Ministers has 11 ministerial councils: Labour; Sustainable Growth; Fisheries and Aquaculture, Agriculture, Food and Forestry; Gender Equality; Culture; The Ministers for Nordic Co-operation; Legislative Affairs; Environment and Climate; Health and Social Affairs; Education and Research; Finance; and the Ad-hoc Council of Ministers on Digitalization. The ministers meet a few times each year, and the prime ministers meet annually.

The Council’s Secretariat additionally oversees:

  • 12 Nordic institutions: the Nordic institute for Advanced Training in Occupational Health; Nordic Innovation; Nordic Energy Research; Nordregio; NordGen; the Nordic Welfare Centre; NordForsk; Nordic Culture Point; the Nordic Houses in Reykjavik and the Faroe Islands; Nordic Institutes in Åland and Greenland; and,
  • three Baltic offices in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

3. Prizes

The Nordic Council awards five annual prizes in Literature, Film, Music, Environment, and Children and Young People’s Literature.

Nordic Cooperation Bodies and the European Union

Nordic cooperation has long grappled with other forms of international collaboration (such as pan-European institutions) and conflict (Cold War superpowers). The first president of the Nordic Council, Danish prime minister Hans Hedtoft, saw the Council as a means for the Nordic countries to benefit broader European efforts, and believed that such regional groupings would be key to the European project’s ultimate success.

However, as the EU came into being many decades later in the 1990s, mechanisms for European cooperation appeared to threaten the future of Nordic cooperation bodies, particularly as different Nordic countries pursued varying levels of European cooperation and integration. This made it challenging to present a united front in European matters. Finland and Sweden joined the EU in 1995, while Norway and Iceland did not but became part of the European Economic Area in 1994.

Despite this challenge, many felt that traditional Nordic cooperation still had value. The Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers responded to the changes in Europe with reforms to open up their institutions to neighbouring regions. In some cases, the changes were not long-lasting: for example, the Nordic Council reorganised along geographic pillars (Nordic, neighboring regions, and EU) in the 1990s, but reverted to its traditional committee-based structure in 2001. To this day, however, both bodies work closely with other neighbouring regional groupings (for example, in the Baltic and Arctic regions). In addition, guest status at the Nordic Council, which was first extended to the Baltic states in 1991, has recently been expanded - for example, the German state of Schleswig-Holstein attended the 2016 plenary. The only official observer is the Sami Parliamentary Council.

Although early EU integration appeared to reduce the relevance of the Nordic cooperation bodies, the Nordic Council and Council of Ministers returned to greater prominence when the EU enlarged to 28 states in 2004. This shift enhanced the importance of regional cooperation, and the Nordic countries again began to discuss Nordic regionalism through their formal bodies as a result. The Nordic countries also began to look inward toward regional cooperation after the Crimea situation damaged ties with Russia. Closer cooperation was however challenged by the migrant crisis of 2014, which reversed (in part) some of the Councils’ earlier successes (for example, by once again imposing borders in certain areas and reducing freedom of movement).

The Nordic Council of Ministers also works closely with the EU to develop policy, although it does not have a formalised mechanism to consider EU issues. It is not meant to supplant EU cooperation but supplement it. Recently, the Nordic Council appointed a Brussels liaison to coordinate with Nordic MEPs.

The impact of the Nordic Council

The Nordic Council and the Council of Ministers have been criticised for their limited impact, particularly on grander-scale projects, but they have both built on previous informal collaborations and created many other organisations that have furthered regional cooperation. They may operate slowly (often taking a year or more to deliberate issues), but they have impacted daily life in the Nordic countries.

It is clear that in its early days, the Council made significant headway in furthering cooperation in travel and transportation as well as social and cultural arenas, building on prior, less formalised efforts in these areas. The Nordic Council paved the way for similar legislation being passed in the Nordic countries, improved freedom of movement, and cooperation in many important fields. The Nordic Passport Union, established in 1958, was a forerunner of the European Schengen system.

The Council has also served as a lively debate forum, since it was not ultimately responsible for implementing its recommendations. From the beginning, and particularly with the introduction of Nordic political party groups within the Council in the 1980s, it was also an opportunity for similar-minded political parties from different Nordic countries to meet and align their policies. Although the Nordic Council’s role within political debate has  weakened somewhat in recent decades, the pressure from hot-button issues such as migration has once again made the Council a relevant forum. On the other hand, the Council’s lack of legal power has at times limited its ability to influence and change policy.

The Nordic cooperation mechanisms have been much studied and even imitated: for example, the British-Irish Council follows the Nordic model. However, the unique degree of shared cultural and social history and norms in the Nordic countries may make it difficult for other regions to duplicate these organisations’ structure, impact, and work.

Further reading:

  • Christian Opitz and Tobias Etzold, ‘Seeking Renewed Relevance: Institutions of Nordic Cooperation in the Reform Process.’ SWP Comment 3 (2018)
  • Frantz Wendt, <e>The Nordic Council and Co-operation in Scandinavia (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1959)
  • Paul Dolan, ‘The Nordic Council’, The Western Political Quarterly, 12, 2 (1959), pp. 511-526
  • Tobias Etzold, ‘The Case of the Nordic Councils: Mapping Multilateralism in Transition No. 1’, International Peace Institute, 2013
  • V. Simoulin, ‘Le Conseil nordique: vecteur identitaire ou bureaucratie perdue?’, Nordiques 1, pp. 11-32 (2003)

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