The Icelandic Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers – The Nordic Region: A force for peace

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The Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers rotates between the five Nordic member countries and is held for a period of one calendar year.  During 2023, Iceland holds the Presidency of the Nordic Council. 

At the end of March 2023, the Scottish Parliament’s Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee will discuss the Icelandic priorities for its Presidency with the Icelandic Ambassador to the UK.  This blog sets out the priorities of the Icelandic Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers. 

What is the Nordic Council of Ministers?

The Nordic Council of Ministers provides the forum for intergovernmental cooperation amongst the five Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.  Whilst Greenland and the Faroe Islands remain part of Denmark when it comes to the conduct of foreign affairs, their devolved governments participate in Council of Ministers work.  This means  they now have “greater representation and stronger positions in the Nordic Council of Ministers and now enjoy practically the same representation as the other members”.

Whilst part of the same structure of Nordic cooperation, the Nordic Council of Ministers is distinct from the Nordic Council which is the official body for formal inter-parliamentary co-operation across the region. 

The Nordic Council of Ministers consists of a number of different groups.  The key groups are the Ministers for Nordic Co-operation (MR-SAM) which holds the responsibility for directing Nordic intergovernmental cooperation and the Nordic Committee for Co-operation (NSK), which is made up of officials who co-ordinate the day-to-day work of Nordic intergovernmental cooperation.

There are currently a number of ministerial councils as well as the Ministers for Nordic Co-operation group. These focus on the following policy areas:

  • Legislation and justice
  • working life
  • digitalisation and innovation
  • disability
  • the environment and climate
  • sustainable development
  • children and young people
  • energy
  • culture
  • education and research
  • gender equality and LGTBI
  • language.

Vision 2030

Collectively the Nordic Council’s governments have committed to “the Nordic region becoming the most sustainable and integrated region in the world by 2030”. The work of the Nordic Council of Ministers is directed to achieving this aim.

Vision 2030

The Nordic Council member governments adopted its Vision 2030 in August 2019.  The joint statement said:

“The Nordic Region is our home, our world. The sea connects us, forests and lakes provide us with shelter and sustenance, fresh winds blow in over lush meadows, islands and skerries. We have mountains and fjords, glaciers and volcanoes, black sand and deep valleys. All over the Nordic Region, in towns and in the country, we seek to live in harmony with nature and create sustainable societies.

But we must do more. Climate change, pollution and threats to biodiversity call for our attention, our energy. The Nordic model also faces growing challenges as democracy, integration and inclusion come under pressure.

We in the Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Åland – are determined to lead the way and find good solutions for the future. We listen to our young people and we agree with them that the time has come for concrete climate action.”

The Icelandic Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers

The headline for the Icelandic Presidency is “The Nordic Region – A Force for Peace”.  Iceland’s Presidency will focus on three priority areas:

  • A green Nordic region.
  • A competitive Nordic region.
  • A socially sustainable Nordic Region.

These three priorities are also the areas identified in the Nordic Council’s Vision 2030.  The Presidency is also taking place against the backdrop of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, which is clearly of concern to all Nordic countries.  The invasion has already led to both Sweden and Finland seeking membership of NATO, where they will join their other Nordic Council partners who are already members. 

The Icelandic Presidency has also prioritised progressing a “just green transition” during 2023.  Other priorities for the Presidency are:

  • The sustainable utilisation of marine resources.
  • Gender equality and rights, especially for transgender and intersex people.
  • Equal opportunities for participation in the labour market.
  • Strengthening and development of the Nordic culture and arts scene.
  • Joint Nordic policy for digital language technology.
  • Strengthened West Nordic co-operation during the presidency.

How will these priorities be implemented?

Unlike the European Union, the Nordic Council does not have a legislation making body or any way of enforcing agreements.  As a result, these policy priorities will be pursued by joint agreement between governments and sharing of best practice across the Nordic region. 

The next section of the blog examines the priorities under each of the Presidency’s three priority areas. 

A green Nordic region

In this area, the Icelandic Presidency will focus on measures in the following policy areas:

  • Environment
  • equality
  • maritime
  • energy
  • sustainability. 

Some key highlights under the environment and equality policy areas are promoting Nordic cooperation to make progress on climate change adaptation and taking advantage of the job opportunities created by the green transition.  The Presidency will also consider sustainable solutions in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and direct attention to the Nordic Region’s opportunities regarding the capture and permanent storage of carbon. 

The Presidency will seek to make progress to develop the region’s green energy potential and will also seek to promote sustainable development and circular economy policies across the Nordic region. 

A competitive Nordic region

In this area, the Icelandic Presidency will focus on measures in the following policy areas:

  • Social development
  • labour market
  • digitalisation
  • culture.

Some key highlights under this priority include the promotion of green growth and the use of new methods and technology to promote the participation of young people in the Nordic Region in public debate. 

In the area of employment, the Presidency will promote study of the effects pandemics have on the labour market and examine how the Nordic region can support “a healthy and sustainable working environment for everyone’s benefit throughout their working lives, in order to maintain the wealth of experience that exists within the workforce”.  The Presidency will also “place a special focus on the needs of immigrants and people with disabilities and how to facilitate their inclusion in the labour market”. 

To promote closer working and integration across the Nordic region, the Presidency will focus on digital solutions and “common recognition of professional qualifications and improved tax regulations between the countries in order to enable people to study, work and run companies in countries other than their own”.

A socially sustainable Nordic region

In this area, the Icelandic Presidency will focus on measures in the following policy areas:

  • Health
  • rights
  • innovation.

Focusing on health, some of the key priorities for the Presidency include a focus on improved public and mental health, particularly for children and young people, embracing the digital transformation to support healthcare, encouraging innovation in health and welfare matters and protection against antimicrobial resistance. 

The Presidency will continue promoting a healthy and safe working environment by identifying future challenges in occupational health and safety. The Presidency will also continue to place an emphasis on the fight against human trafficking across the Nordic region.  In addition, the Presidency will continue to encourage a focus on implementing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child across the Nordic region and will “focus on the importance that central and local governments within the Nordic Region join hands in working together on child-friendly societies”.

Under the innovation policy, the Presidency will seek to further develop the Nordic region’s reputation at the forefront of innovation and implementation of technological solutions.  There will be a particular focus on ensuring electronic solutions are accessible to disabled persons on the same basis as able bodied persons.  There will also be a focus on integrating social and healthcare services, in particular for elderly persons.

Scottish Government interaction with the Nordic Region

In August 2022, the Scottish Government opened its Nordic Office in Copenhagen.  The Scottish Government has prioritised improved links with the Nordic region because:

“Scotland has strong shared interests with the Nordics on culture, environment, energy, climate change, digital economies, wellbeing and social services, and preservation and opportunities in the Arctic region.”

According to the Scottish Government:

“The Nordic office aims to improve these connections, helping to connect business, cultural organisations and academia, as well as connecting politically. In this way, we won’t only strengthen diplomatic links, but ties between people, culture and economies, helping to make Scotland a natural part of the European family.”

In September 2017, the Scottish Government updated its Nordic-Baltic policy statement.   The document makes no reference to the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Scottish Government has not indicated it has plans to seek to work directly with the Nordic Council of Ministers, nor is it clear whether this would be possible.  However, the policy statement does set out an ambition to “work on cross-border and multi-countries initiatives with partners” across the Nordic-Baltic region. 

Iain McIver, SPICe Research

Image: Johan Ramberg / Getty Images