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A free labour market demands practical solutions

| Text: Björn Lindahl

“We shall spare no efforts to make the Nordic and the Baltic countries the best when it comes to integration within the EU. Not until then may we influence the other member states, and further broaden the common labour market.”

So says Berit Andnor, Minister for Family Affairs in the Swedish government. She is responsible for Nordic cooperation in the government as well. The Nordic countries cooperate on two levels – on the first level, the ministers cooperate within the Nordic Council of Ministers, and on the other the parliamentarians cooperate inside the Nordic Council.

The Nordic cooperation runs parallel with all countries being members either of the EU or the EEA. In recent years, the cooperation with the Baltic States has been strengthened as well.

During Sweden’s period as chairman of the Nordic Council, border impediments and everyday integration efforts have been highlighted.

Even by 1954, a free Nordic labour market was introduced, but the citizens could not always freely exercise their right to work in a neighbouring Nordic country. A number of minor and major obstacles remain in place – and at the same time, new ones arise.

“A Swedish construction worker who starts working in another Nordic country tends to believe that the terms and agreement in the working place are a close match. The agreement, however, may look different, and doesn’t always offer the same security which we are used to,” says Berit Andnor.

The problems do not necessarily arise in the neighbouring country. From time to time it happens that when a person returns to his or her native country, he or she discovers that the visit abroad has had consequences towards ones unemployment benefits or other advantages.

“Many people believe the Nordic countries are more equal than they actually are,” says Berit Andnor. For those who commute across the border, questions arise which, on occasions, must be solved on the government level. In July 2000, the bridge across Öresund, linking Sweden and Denmark, was inaugurated. It led to a hefty increase in the number of commuters between the two countries. First and foremost, Danes moved to Sweden, where housing was cheaper. At the same time, they carried on their work in Denmark. For that reason, a dispute arose over where those commuters should pay their income tax.

Towards the end of October, the dispute was settled. The Swedish finance minister, Bosse Ringholm, and the Danish minister for taxation, Sven Erik Hovmand agreed that income tax should be paid in the country where the taxpayer is working.

As there are more Danish than Swedish commuters across the border, Denmark shall compensate the Swedish municipalities where the Danish commuters are living with 22 million Euros a year.

 “We are not likely to achieve harmonised laws on taxation and social security. Length of maternity leave and child benefit will always continue to differ,” Berit Andnor says.

“The challenge is to find pragmatic solutions based on the regulations in force, and make it easier and less burdensome for the citizens to seek employment in another Nordic country, or commute across the border.”

It is not always possible to find the best solution, from a Nordic point of view. One such is the proposal to introduce a common Nordic Personal Identification Number.

“It is not realistic, except as a long-term possibility, but the Nordic agreement on national registers has been modified, allowing for information regarding removal to be passed on straight from one Nordic authority to another”.

The consequence is that the individual may be registered faster in the new country of residence, which also speeds up the process of opening a bank account and other practical things.

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