Northern Future Forum: Uniscan reborn?

In January 2011, representatives from the Nordic and Baltic countries gathered in London under David Cameron’s stewardship for the first UK Nordic Baltic Summit. As described on the event’s webpage, the goal of the meeting was to…

bring together Prime Ministers, policy innovators, entrepreneurs and business leaders from the UK, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to discuss how best to boost economic growth, enterprise and job creation while improving people’s wellbeing.

The whole scheme originated, according to the Financial Times, in a meeting the past November between Cameron and Frederik Reinfelt, Sweden’s conservative Prime Minister. On the Nordic/Baltic side, the framework was provided by the NB8 cooperation, an informal setting gathering ministers and other actors from the five Nordic Countries and the three Baltic States. After the first reunion in London, the countries involved renamed their creation the Northern Future Forum, and have met every year since, first in Stockholm 2012, then in Riga 2013. The 2014 meeting is due to happen in Helsinki in November.

Why exactly should we care about what seems like a benign, informal talking shop between Prime Ministers, interested mostly in trade and economic relations?

The first reason to care has to do with the … interesting times the European Union is living in. David Cameron has a tough domestic crowd to please: Tory backbenchers with an eye on UKIP and an old euro-skeptic streak, the euro-bashing British press, etc. To those, he has been brandishing some kind of EU reform as the goal of his tenure. But the looser, less institutionalized European cooperation Cameron advocates will need support from other EU member-states in order to proceed.

Seen from London, the Scandinavian and Baltic states can appear like the right candidates for the kind of alliance building London needs inside the EU. Britain and the Nordic Countries have a history of cooperation outside and inside the EU. Juhana Aunesluoma reminds us in his PhD of British-Nordic contacts during the 1950s. In the 1960s, the Nordic Countries and Britain were the heart of EFTA. They could also be seen to share a less sanguine vision of European cooperation than their “continental” neighbors, aloof from the desire for political cooperation exhibited elsewhere and more interested in scaling the system back to trade cooperation between sovereign nation-states.  In the two-speed Europe that might come out of the current crisis-induced brewing of ideas and projects, the Scandinavian countries might be susceptible to fall on the side of Britain. In this context, the NFF can be seen as a little push: a British effort to create an intergovernmental forum to try and coordinate Cameron’s attempts to reform the EU (this is, for instance, James Kilcourse’s view on the forum). Will the NFF unfold into a new Uniscan, before becoming a new EFTA?

Of course the big question – that seems to puzzle the Brits themselves – is on which side of the fence Germany will fall. Merkel’s “mehr Europa” stance has been cruelly devoid of actual substance – and when it crystallizes for a while, it seems to get as much criticism as support, both in and outside Germany. And then there is France, cast as the villain of the play – the unreformed, bureaucratic, socialist, latin problem child that, being pushed too much, might be susceptible to actually push back. In any case, the endgame will be difficult if it relies on one of the actors involved having to accept an unsavory deal: whatever comes up will have to be a compromise between coalitions inside the EU. Informal arenas like the NFF look like preparatory work for such alliance making, a lobbying effort happening under the surface. Looking at relations between the three big and smaller nations in this kind of organizations might be a way to get a better feel for the coalition building that will set the pace for EU reform down the road.

The second reason why the NFF should draw attention is because of the redefinition of the Nordic region it might usher in. Potential Nordic cooperation in defense matters has been regularly teased at since the 2008 Stoltenberg report, and it is coming back in the context of the Crimean crisis. In parallel, the Baltic States have been using their EU memberships to develop contacts with their neighbors, and especially with the Nordic Countries. Are we looking at the emergence of an axis, that would go between Reykjavik and Tallinn, with London as the midwife cum godfather? What would be the effect of this kind of cooperation?

Finally, the NFF brings to light an aspect of foreign relations that deserves scrutiny, namely informal politics and networks. The build-up of parliamentary majorities in the countries involved in NFF – that with the exception of Denmark are led by conservative governments, or by split governments with a strong conservative core – brings to mind the 1960s-1970s cooperation between Social-democratic Nordic parties and Labor leaders. These aspects have been studied by both Christian Salm and Matthew Broad; both of them find links between the formation of Labor European policy and the contacts of Labor personalities with Social-Democratic Nordic leaders in informal settings (party conferences, etc). Are we looking at the same sort of links between David Cameron and the conservatives of Nordic and Baltic Europe?

All that might be pure fantasy, or at least exaggeration. After all, the NFF might be just what it says on the tin – a glorified business fair to promote British goods and know-hows in London’s “near abroad”, through “public diplomacy” aimed at certain groups inside the Nordic Countries – business leaders, politicians, the press, etc. Yet, the temptation is strong to see something else under that. Let’s see what will be the results of the 2014 Helsinki meeting of NFF.

 

 

Ps. The main problem for the creation of any form of political axis between the UK and the Nordic Countries might be the difficulties the Nordic Countries have had in the past, and may have in the future, to work together beyond bold statements of solidarity. NATO membership is something that clearly introduces a wedge between these countries, with Finland and Sweden standing as the only countries in the region outside of the Organization.

In these two countries, the “NATO debate” has been reactivated by the Crimean crisis and Russia’s new activism.  But as recent polls show in Finland, the population remains largely unimpressed by NATO. One interesting thing, that showed in a poll realized three weeks ago by the weekly Suomen Kuvalehti (edition 21.3.2014), is the reason why people oppose NATO. As the picture below shows, what stands out of this poll is the 34% who can’t say why they oppose NATO, or won’t tell why. That is a third of the polled unable or unwilling to formulate why they see NATO as damaging to Finland’s international position.

20140409_163053

What this poll shows is that a good part of opposition to NATO in Finland is rooted into unreflective isolationism, the reflex of a part of the population which frames Finland’s “neutrality” as an effort to retire from the world. For them, NATO will never do – and so will the EU and other international cooperation schemes.

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