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Relations between the European Union and the Nordic Countries: is there a Nordic Reluctance?

Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland

, by Translated by Peter Matjašič, Ronan Blaise

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

The Nordic countries are often perceived as being hesitant with regard to the European construction. It is true that they often showed to be very careful on the matter. And even though some of these states actually became members of the European Union (like Denmark, Sweden and Finland), one knows that they often remained being wary.


Other states (like Iceland and Norway) made the choice not to join the EU, but concluded specific agreements with the Union… Is there thus such a thing as specifically Nordic “Eurosceptic” reluctance? If so, on what is it based?

And, in the light of the (geo)political and economic changes of these last years, are there thus some reasons to imagine the nearest end of it? As well as future enlargement of the European Union to Iceland and Norway, these two large countries of the North?

The current situation:

The countries of the Nordic space have all had different behaviours towards the European construction [1].

Some of them developed an integrationist approach. This is true, for example, of Finland (which held the presidency of the Council of the European Union during the last six-month period of 2006 and remains, today, more integrated and more “Europeanised” than any of the remaining Nordic countries…). Others have not and prefer maintaining a more ambiguous relationship with Europe.

Some of them prudently remained wary of the European construction, going as far as developing behaviours that can be considered more or less Eurosceptic. This is the case of Sweden (which refused the single currency, by referendum, in 2003) or, in a way still more accentuated, of Denmark (which had initially refused the treaty of Maastricht per referendum and which, also, does not form part of the European monetary union).

As for Iceland and in Norway, their position with regard to the European Union remains very particular: these two countries being very close to the Union, without being members.

History of reluctance:

It should be said that the reluctance of the Nordic countries towards European integration does not go back to yesterday. Since the 1960s, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Norway had taken part in the launching of EFTA (i.e. “European Free Trade Association”) [2], an alternative project to the EEC of the time: a customs zone relating to only certain products and not planning to transform itself into a political project.

With the progressive demonetization of EFTA at the beginning of the 1990s its Member States either joined the rows of the Union (as it was the case for Denmark in January 1973, Finland and Sweden joined in January 1995), or to conclude bilateral agreements with it: within the framework of the EEA (i.e. “European Economic Area”), in the case of Iceland and Norway.

Agreements which make it possible to include the countries signatories in the single market, to extend the principle of free-circulation of people, capital, goods and services to these countries and to associate them with the many Community programmes (in particular as regards education). Moreover, the States in question must adopt the so-called ’acquis communautaire’ for the fields technically covered by the agreement (however, they do not form part of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy, neither economic and monetary Union, neither the common fisheries policy, nor the CFSP (Common Foreign and Security Policy) [3].

Agreements which make that Norway and Iceland are in fact today very close to the Union without being official members. Not only because 70% to 80% of their exports (and a large part of their imports) are done with the EU. But also because the agreements signed, oblige them to adapt whole parts of the ’acquis communautaire’. Nevertheless, Norwegians refused to join the EU via referendum twice, whereas Iceland has never expressed the wish to do so.

Reasons for the Nordic reluctance:

The reluctance of the Nordic states towards European construction seems to be the result of a true local culture of independence. Thus, old women or young nations (like Denmark and Sweden or, a contrario, Norway and Iceland…), the countries of north developed companies culturally very “individualised” around a strong nationalist rhetoric and from an authentic decentralised practice of local democracy.

And that is all the more sensitive for a country like Norway, which celebrated the centenary of its recovered independence last year: small country certainly, but which − thanks to its many diplomatic initiatives, such as in 1993, the signature of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords − nevertheless succeeded in taking a lead in the international scene [4].

For these countries, joining the European project would be equivalent to a loss of sovereignty and a loss of independence in favour of a European structure perceived as largely bureaucratic and centralised. Without speaking about the threats that this would possibly imply for their models of welfare state, the famous Scandinavian “Välfärdsstaten” [5] [6].

Moreover, these countries worry about their agriculture, their fishing and fear that their possible future “set in a European tune” is not very expensive in terms of employment, of quality of life and quality of production. This is why they would wish − in the event of the start-up of a possible process of adhesion − to be able to have exemptions similar to those from which their Finnish and Swedish neighbours recently profited [7].

Then: Norway, in or out?!

In Norway, a European debate had already taken place. At least twice. Indeed, at the beginning of the 1970s and in the middle of the 1990s, four Norwegian governments already tried to promote and obtain the approval of their country to enter the process of European construction. And this, by referendum.

A debate which had then created sensation. And on the occasion of which the Norwegian public opinion then strongly polarized in two antagonistic camps, representing each one approximately half of the population. But, both times (in 1972 and 1994) the Norwegian people refused the EU-entry which was then proposed to them: by referendum and a narrow majority (53,5% in 1972 and 52,3% in 1994).

This is why today, even if the opinions favourable to adhesion seem to gain ground in the Norwegian public opinion, it seems that the Norwegian politicians favourable to EU-entry remain relatively discrete. Such an amount of it seems today clear that after “the failures” chief clerks of 1972 and November 1994, no Norwegian government will launch out from now on more in one third popular consultation if it is not − in advance − really ensured of being able to carry it this time.

And Iceland?!

On the other hand, in Iceland, the question of a possible adhesion to the European Union did not captivate the public opinion yet. Thus, according to recent opinion polls, in Iceland the undecided ones would account for approximately 38% of the electorate (compared to hardly 5% in Norway). Nevertheless, several indices leave us to think that in Iceland the opinions favourable to an EU-entry gain ground today.

Thus, in 2000, the Prime Minister Davis Oddson, of obedience rather Euroscepticism, had declared that “nothing calls for entry”. And one can consider that this colourful personality (Prime Minister during thirteen years…) had to some extent inhibited the debate. So that none the great Icelandic political parties had formally registered the file of a possible accession of Iceland to the Union on its political diary.

But, since then, Davis Oddson left the place to Halldor Asgrimsson, his former Foreign Minister, who even if it still remains very careful on the question finally proves to be today much more favourable to the prospect of a possible EU-entry of his country.

And this, especially since the recent American decision to withdraw their troops from Iceland (i.e. in total 1200 men who on the basis of a bilateral treaty between the two states − entitled “Agreement of Defence” − ensure the safety of the island). This could therefore lead to a complete redefinition of the Icelandic foreign policy towards a more marked European orientation (even bringing it closer to the Union…).

Nevertheless, in the short run, the political option most realistic in the short and medium term remains the continuation of the participation of these two countries in a process of European integration, without becoming full members.

A situation which is not stripped of disadvantages for the states in question. Since by refusing to join the Union, the two states in fact only have to implement the Community policies and standards, without really being able to influence them. [8].

A paradoxical situation and a form of marginalisation that could finally appear worse than a possible loss of sovereignty. This is why it could happen that the debate about a possible entry of these two countries to the European Union can soon reappear on the agenda...

See online : Scandinavia on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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- Images:

Scandinavian Peninsula in Winter (February 19, 2003), a picture taken by NASA , the image is available at Wikipedia.

- Sources :

“Is this the end of the Nordic reluctance?”: Article by Damien Derouet (Document published in the quarterly “Compared Europe” n°6 of the 1st quarter 2005: p. 22-23-24).

“Norway: the happiness is in the oil”: article (on Norway) by Antoine Jacob (document published in the French daily paper “Le Monde” of June 8th, 2005: page 15).

“US don’t go home!”: Article (about Iceland) by Gunnar Herrmann (Document of “Süddeutsche Zeitung” published in the “International Mail” n°805 of April 6th, 2006: page 18).

- Further Reading:

“The Northern Europe in the XXth century” : « Que sais-je » n°3432 by François-Charles Mougel (Professor of contemporary History at the IEP in Bordeaux).


[1Note: In this article we shall deal only with cases of Scandinavian states internationally established at present. The very particular cases of the Scandinavian and Nordic autonomous territories (i.e.: Greenland, Faeroes Islands, Spitzberg-Svalbard, islands Åland-Ahvenanmaa, etc.) shall be the subject of a later publication in our columns.

Nevertheless, just to clarify that ’’Groenland-Kalaallit Nunaat’’ (which benefits, since 1978-1979, from a status of internal autonomy within the Kingdom of Denmark) has (supervised by its PM at that time: the Lutheran left minister Jonathan Motzfeldt) left the EEC (European Economic Community) from February 1st, 1985, following a referendum (organized in 1982)...

Before being reinstated in the European Union via the European Constitutional Treaty as “Countries and overseas territories” of the Union (cf. Appendix II of the Treaty). And in the preferential commercial and economic clauses: notably in the field of the fishing and the customs duties regulating the imports in the direction of the single market (cf. additional protocol n°30).

[2Together with the United Kingdom, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein.

[3And just to clarify that these countries joined also, in 1996, the Schengen area allowing the free movement of the persons.

[4cf. “How a small country led the international scene”: article from “Time” of New York (document published in the “International Mail” n°612 of July 25th, 2002: page 10).

[5These countries of Northern Europe all have in common to have dynamic savings and social models envied by all. Because they conjugate full employment and social solidarity. Implementing a system of “mixed capitalism with keynesian management” in the service of the famous “tripartite” programme of societal development “Equality, Security, Solidarity” defined at the appropriate time by then Swedish Prime Minister (and social democrat) Olof Palme.

[6’“Welfare State” is largely financed, in Norway, by receipts generated by the exploitation of natural resources in hydrocarbons of the North Sea and the Barents Sea; thanks to which Norway is at present the 1st European producer and the 7th world producer of oil. Or henceforth more than 1000 billion Norwegian krones. Cf. “Oslo manages carefully the oil basket”: article from “Financial Times” (document published in the “International Mail” n°748 of March 3rd, 2005: page 42).

[7A special regime of “arctic agriculture” having been granted to them as specific exemption in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

[8Within the framework of the European Economic Area (EEA), these two countries are consulted in fact only in the phase of elaboration of the community legislations (and do thus not dispose of the right of amendment...).

Your comments

  • On 3 March 2007 at 19:26, by UB Replying to: Relations between the European Union and the Nordic Countries: is there a Nordic Reluctance?

    Dear Sir,

    thank you for your interesting article on the Nordic countries and their different stances towards European integration. Being a European of Swedish decent I take particular interest in your article.

    Let’s see it in another light. Undoubtedly the Nordic states within the Union, Sweden, Finland and Denmark has made a difference, despite their different approaches towards the EU. Together, in the EU, they have found it easier to approach similar minded States like e.g. Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and any/many other states, to build coalitions to improve the environmental matters, to have emplyoment rights, transparency in the EU-institutions for increased support and democracy, and similar things introduced into the treaties. Moreover, the countries have such a different stances, as well as historic backgrounds for that for their stance, so it is not really reasonable to try to dechiper a pattern of why some hesitance, reluctance or ’no’ occurs, and sweepingly put all the Nordic countries together.

    In any case, sometimes reluctancde can infact prove useful. Eventually. The Danish ’No’ in 1992 was an earthquake for all governements. It could be seen as an impulse to improve the Union, slowly and gradually. The governments suddenly realised that the EU could not longer be taken for granted and their own efforts to explain the EU had been totally insufficient. Indeed the Union has become much more open since that event, since the arrival of the 3rd enlargement countries in 1995. For Norway I may add, even a simple thing as the word ’Union’ had a negative connotation since the foreced union with Sweden. But more importantly was the fact that Norway has little economic need of the EU becouse of its rich oil wells. So the nationalistic rethoric, and self chosen ’splendid isolation’ will become an even more integrated part of Norweigan folk soul for the foreseable future.

    Club theory

    Both Norway and Iceland can do well withouth the Union. As can the EU. In fact even better. You would not want “a new Sweden” entering into the EU, with a hesitant population, and thus weak government, unable to support, drive and enhance European integration. New forms of co-operations, ’everything but membership’ is the solution for these two countries. As for many other countries knocking on the door. The notion of ’borders’ in/out need to be disolved. Just as already the Prodi Commission spoke of the EU having a ’ring of friends" for the EU, rather than offering membership. If the EU wants to be able to keep its efficiency in decision making power, it can not keep on expanding without limits. For each new member there is a a ’cost’ as ’club theory’ teaches us. (The EU giving up decision making efficiency, less time for discussions in the Council, the added value of one more full member states simply reduces for each new one. Not to mention how it dilutes the representativity in the European Parliament.) So that Norway or Iceland would enter into the Union without a substantial price to pay is unthinkable, as they would contribute very little.

    Nordic states all different-all equal

    The individual dilemma of each Nordic country is a problem for them each. As they are all different. Norway having too much oil. Iceland not wanting to give up fisheries. Sweden being a underperforming member, and Finland not having a problem at all. This is not for the EU.

    EU to focus on problems in the southeast/east, not north.

    The EU should concentrate on the problematic parts of Europe, instead than looking towards the north and the ’troublesome’ Norway and Iceland. Relations with Ukraine, and the only dictator in Europe in Belarussia is of course much more pressing. As well as integrating Croatia into the Union eventually. It they really would want to join in a few years, the EU may not have time for them anyway. The main and only thing they oculd contribute with would be to make a heavy financial tribute to the EU’s funding. Politically, for the EU, there is little advantage ith on the inside. Let them remain good examples of countries that stay outside of the formal, strict ’border’ of being inside the EU and that the EU can not harbour all European countries if it should remain credible, democratic and efficient. Instead countries should be offered edverything but membership, just as the Prodi Commission clarified.

    (May I mention that none of the Nordic states is really young, possibly apart from Finland, which became the common term in the mid 18th century. You may want to alter the spelling of ’Välfärdsstaten’ the welfare state’.) Yours sincerly Ulf Bergstrom, PSE, Greece/Sweden

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