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Future Nordic mobility depends on crisis cooperation

| Text: Marie Preisler

Increased Nordic cooperation is needed before Nordic citizens can regain pre-Corona levels of confidence to apply for jobs, study or buy second homes in a different Nordic country. That was the message at a conference on border obstacles on Nordic Day 2021.

We need to stand together in times of crisis. The opposite happened when the Corona pandemic hit the Nordic countries. They all introduced their own border and immigration restrictions at great practical, economical and personal cost to many citizens. It also flew in the face of the crown jewel of Nordic cooperation – free movement across borders.

How can mobility be reinstalled and citizens’ trust be regained? That was one of the themes during five online conferences marking the 50th anniversary of the Nordic Council of Ministers. Bertel Haarder, the Nordic Council of Ministers President and member of the Freedom of Movement Council, described the anniversary conference’s sombre backdrop:  

“The Nordic gold is being put to the test. Trust has been weakened, especially in the border areas, where citizens struggle to understand the measures that have obstructed them for a whole year.”

He pointed to the fact that Denmark was the first Nordic country to abandon the Nordic freedom of movement by closing its border to Sweden when the pandemic hit in 2020. Sweden followed up, and Danish citizens on the island of Bornholm could not celebrate Christmas with family members in the rest of Denmark. 

According to Bertel Haarder, Norway set a “discrimination record” by forcing Swedish workers in Norway to eat their breakfast in separate rooms while wearing vests identifying them as Swedish.

“When there is a crisis, the Nordic countries put themselves first,” said the Nordic Council of Ministers President.

A long-term crisis of trust

The Nordic Council of Ministers’ Secretary-General Paula Lehlomäki called this “a major challenge” for Nordic cooperation and said the Nordic perspective was absent and still is from decisions which the Nordic countries are planning to make for border closures and quarantine rules in order to control the spread of Corona. 

“This is the core problem as I see it,” said Paula Lehlomäki.

She predicts that citizens’ desire to work and study in a different country – within or outside of the Nordics – will remain diminished for a long time.

A survey made for the Freedom of Movement Council shows that 80% of those who live and work in Nordic border regions experience limits being put on their opportunity to move across borders, due to Covid 19,

Still to be solved tax problem

The participants shared examples from across the Nordic countries of how Corona-related border obstacles these past 12 months have split families and complicated the working life for people who commute to a different Nordic country. Some of the obstacles have been overcome through Nordic cooperation, like which country a cross-border commuter should be registered in for social security purposes when having to work from home.  

Meanwhile, no solution has yet been found for which country cross-border commuters should pay taxes in when they have to work from home involuntarily because of Covid 19. This creates a great conundrum for workers, employers and tax authorities in all the countries, said Malin Dahl,  the site manager for Øresunddirekt Sweden.

“Taxation is by far the most common issue we are asked to provide advice on. It creates huge levels of frustration,” she said.

These words made the Nordic Council of Ministers President Bertel Haarder promise he would write to the Nordic countries’ governments again – for the fourth time, he said – asking them to solve the issue of taxation.

People representing Danes and Norwegians owning second homes in Sweden were urging action. They wish to be able to start using and look after their properties in Sweden again. 

Crisis preparedness and evaluation

All the participants agreed that everything must be done to prevent new crises from wrecking Nordic mobility in the same way that the pandemic has. Some suggested the establishment of some kind of joint Nordic crisis preparedness team which would make sure the Nordics kept open a dialogue aimed at avoiding or at least lessen the effects of border closures and other limitations to Nordic citizens’ ability to move across borders.

Bertel Haarder said he would raise this during his next meeting with the Nordic prime ministers, and was cautiously optimistic that the Nordics would learn from the current crisis in Nordic cooperation.

“I do not think we will see the same thing happen again. We in the Nordics want to learn from this,” he said.

The Nordic Council of Ministers Secretary-General Paula Lehlomäki underlined the importance of having a thorough evaluation of the Corona crisis in the Nordic cooperation with the aim of learning from it and succeeding in cooperating even closer in the Nordics going forward – including when or if another crisis occurs. 

Close ministerial contact

Denmark’s Minister for Nordic Cooperation Flemming Møller Mortensen sent a video message where he called the pandemic “a straight-jacket” for Nordic cooperation and said he “understood” the challenges faced by Nordic cross-border commuters. But he also pointed out that he did not see any alternative to the national decisions on border controls during the pandemic. They were necessary.

The minister underlined the importance of Nordic countries staying in close contact with each other during future crises and when working to realise the vision of making the Nordics the most sustainable and integrated region in the world. He described his own dialogue with Nordic ministerial colleagues as “good”, “close” and “honest”.

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