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On the fringes of the EU

| By Björn Lindahl, Editor-in-chief

The Nordics’ relationship with the EU stretches from Denmark joining 50 years ago to Iceland's current renewed debate about reopening accession talks that were never finalised.

This edition of the Nordic Labour Journal looks at different aspects of the Nordic region’s relationship with the EU. We have spoken to organisations on both sides of Norway’s EU debate and with the newly founded European Movement in Iceland. Has public opinion of the EU changed?

We look at what has happened to the 60 billion kroner Norway has paid for access to the EU common market since 2004 and we have a portrait of Finn Ola Jølstad, a Norwegian civil servant who moved to Stockholm to help Sweden during its EU Presidency. Yes, this is possible – thanks to the Nordic Council of Ministers’ grant for work exchange between the Nordic countries, NORUT.

Although Norway and Iceland are not EU members, the recent three crises – the corona pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the energy crisis resulting from this – have highlighted how closely intertwined they are with the EU. 

Norway saw this very clearly last week. On 17 March, EU President Ursula von der Leyen visited the Norwegian Troll platform in the North Sea alongside Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre. 

Natural gas makes up for one-fifth of the total EU energy consumption and 80 per cent of it is imported. After EU sanctions on Russia were introduced, and because that country has also throttled its gas exports, Norwegian gas has become increasingly important. 

That is what the EU, Nato and the Norwegian government wanted to demonstrate with the well-oiled (no pun intended) visit to the Troll Field, which produces 11 per cent of all natural gas consumed in the EU. The gas is used to produce electricity and when gas prices rise, the price of electricity does too because of the Nordics and the EU's common energy grid. 

The day before the platform visit, the Nordic Council’s parliamentarians debated the European energy crisis that led to dramatically higher energy prices in four out of five of the Nordic countries. But not in Iceland, because it is not linked to the Nordic or European electricity market and does not use any natural gas.

Ensuring energy security with affordable prices for consumers while not threatening the global climate is a serious challenge. This is underlined in a report from Nordic Energy Research presented during the special session. 

The report says that a lot of energy policy happens in the wrong order. Rather than first expanding renewables, which then will become more profitable than fossil energy, fossil power plants are first shut down and then countries hope that wind power plants and battery factories can be constructed fast enough to pick up the slack. 

But it takes too long to secure concessions for renewable energy projects and there is not sufficient public support for the infrastructure investments that are needed, warns Nordic Energy Research. 

Processes do not necessarily have to take that long. That same week, in Reykjavik, the OECD presented a report on how the Nordic region managed the corona crisis. During a panel debate, the Director General of Iceland’s Directorate of Labour Unnur Sverrisdóttir explained how she experienced the sudden five-fold rise in unemployment in just four weeks. 

“It was like being hit by a hurricane. Everything had to happen so fast. New legislation on unemployment support was proposed on 5 March, it was agreed in parliament on 21 March and people could start applying on 25 March.”

Stefano Scarpetta, the Director of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs at the OECD, says adaptability and flexibility become particularly important for employment services during a crisis. But it is easier to expand existing labour market measures than to introduce new ones.

Flexibility is important in the benefits systems, but also in the organisation of further education offered to people who lose their jobs, points out the OECD. This is well understood among those in Sweden who are trying to secure enough labour for the large green industry developments in Norrland, like the Northvolt battery giga factory near Skellefteå and the fossil-free production of steel in Luleå.

The Swedish Public Employment Service has long offered work training in areas where this has been needed. This model will not secure enough labour for the industry and municipalities in Norrland. Could the training be held elsewhere? Perhaps remotely? 

“So far the focus has been on energy security when we talk about resilient societies. But resilience is first and foremost about human beings. We need to find the right balance between what society needs and what the individual desires,” says Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir. 

“I studied Icelandic literature and Nordic crime fiction and was told I would never get a proper job. But I became Prime Minister and have already written my first crime novel,” she smiles.


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