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SHF2016丨Dagfinn Høybråten: Regional Integration and Development: Nordic Lessons Learned

Author:  |  Publication Date:2016-06-02

It is a great honor for me to take part in the opening of this year’s Shanghai Forum.

On a professional note I am honored to become part of the impressive list of distinguished speakers of this important forum. I am pleased that the organizers have found that the regional cooperation among the five Nordic countries Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the three autonomous areas Greenland, Faroe Islands and Aaland – which I represent here today as Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers – has relevance to the development of Asia.

The differences between the small Nordic nations and the big Asian countries are vast. But I fully agree that the Nordic experience of regional cooperation and society building is relevant to Asia. I would like to focus my intervention on what we may learn from each other – for I believe that the potential for mutual learning is what should shape Nordic-Asian relations today and in the future. I will do this by discussing some achievements and dilemmas of the Nordic experience and then towards the end of my intervention sum up with the points which I believe are relevant to Asia. Finally, I will mention some of the areas where you are a great inspiration to us.

But before I go into this I would like to say that also on a personal note I am very pleased to be here in Shanghai. This was the port of arrival for my great grandfather when he travelled to China more than 100 years ago as a medical doctor to help people in need and eventually build hospitals and schools in Western China. And it was the port of departure for my grandmother when they left for Norway 17 years later. She was 18 years old at the time. And she deeply regretted having to leave the country of her childhood and her much beloved Chinese countryside. Having travelled to China on several occasions I fully understand her regret – and it is always a pleasure for me to return to China where important roots of my family history are located.

Learning about each other – and from each other

The history of my family bears witness to the fact that Nordic and Asian people may enrich each other when we interact.

We must know each other to learn from each other. This

is a basic premise for a fruitful relationship – between

people and between states.

In his recent book “World Order” former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger tells about his visit to China in 1971 to reestablish contact after two decades of hostility. He mentioned to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai that to the American delegation China was a land of mystery. Premier Zhou Enlai responded “You will find it not mysterious. When you have become familiar with it, it will not seem so mysterious as before.” And – Premier Zhou Enlai went on observing – “after all there are 900 million Chinese – and China seems perfectly normal to them”.

We must know each other to learn from each other.

The work of Fudan University to interact with research institutions all over the world is an important contribution to strengthening mutual relations and mutual learning. In the Nordic Council of Ministers we are pleased to support this in a Nordic context by hosting the Fudan-European Centre at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS). Together these institutions foster new East-West partnerships by conveying knowledge about the Nordic countries in Asia ¨C and by broadening knowledge of modern Asia in the Nordic region. I believe this is a very important work which both regions benefit from.

I understand that the name Fudan origins in the quotation "Heavenly light shines day after day” which symbols the continuous strive for progress. I find this saying very inspirational – also for a man coming from the region of Northern lights.

Nordic cooperation – inspiration for Asia

Which parts of Nordic cooperation could then be of inspiration to Asia?

The basis of the Nordic co-operation is our common historical, cultural and geographical heritage. And the fact that the Nordic societies are based on the same fundamental values, such as democracy, trust, openness, tolerance, equality, sustainability and social welfare.

Just to recap, the Nordic region ranges from Greenland in the East to the borders of Russia in the East. We are altogether 26 million inhabitants. Together, the five Nordic countries constitute the world’s 11th biggest economy.

The Nordic cooperation is one of the oldest and most comprehensive regional partnerships in the world. It is driven by consensus. All decisions are taken unanimously. In essence, the Nordic countries are bound together by common values – and the desire to learn from each other on issues where we differ.

This has not always been the case – though. For the past 200 years the Nordic countries have lived at peace with each other. But going further back, like the rest of Europe the Nordic region was marked by recurrent strife and conflict – with shifting alliances and rulers.

However, in the aftermath of World War 2, bold Nordic leaders chose to cooperate. Acknowledging that together we are stronger, these bold leaders chose to focus on similarities and common interests instead of limitations, differences and fear. This led to the establishment of the Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers.

A Chinese proverb says that one generation plants the trees and another gets the shade. This is true for the Nordic countries and the Nordic cooperation.

Within the first ten years of the Nordic cooperation ambitious decisions were taken to create a passport union, a common Nordic labor-market, a common market for education, and agreement was reached on a convention on social security.

Over the years this close integration between the Nordic countries has been a driver for economic growth and has helped balance economic fluctuations between the countries. Likewise the fact that the Nordic students may choose to study at any Nordic school or university promotes innovation and creativity in the region.

The Nordic model

Evidently, the positive economic development in the Nordic region over the past 70 years is not only due to the integrated Nordic markets. All Nordic countries have chosen to build welfare societies balancing market mechanism and public intervention in what is called the Nordic model - characterized by both flexible and secure labour markets, large investment in human capital, extensive work oriented public safety nets financed by high taxes and efficient public sectors.

This has led to affluent and relatively equal societies. Overall the situation in the Nordic countries can be described as a social contract whereby citizens accept high levels of taxes. Not because Nordic citizens are particularly homogenous or altruistic. But because they get something in return in terms of free health care, free education, well developed infrastructure, high unemployment benefits and so on.

Furthermore, over a long period, the Nordic governments have delivered relative economic equality, low levels of corruption, and a well-functioning public administration that enjoys the legitimacy of its citizens. These are some of the ingredients in the recipe for the Nordic Model.

The Nordic way of organizing society has shown itself to be very rational – leading to strong and innovative economies.

According to the World Bank Group economy rankings, four of the five Nordic countries are among the ten best countries in the word when it comes to the “ease of doing business”-ranking.

Furthermore, four Nordic countries are in the top ten of the Global Creativity Index. In the top-ten listing of countries with the best work-life balance, three are Nordic. Four of the top ten in the Global Gender Gap Index are Nordic countries. The World Press Freedom Index places four of the Nordic countries in the top ten. And finally, on the list of the world’s most optimistic countries we find four Nordic countries.

The fact is that the Nordic countries are consistently high ranking with regard to skills and competencies needed in the future. These virtues and skills are central to the Nordic way of thinking, and part of the success of the Nordic Model, a model which may also be of inspiration for Asia.

Current challenges for the Nordics

However, due to the global trends we now find ourselves in a situation where core elements of the Nordic cooperation and fundamental elements of the Nordic model of society are challenged.

Development in the areas of security and economics as well as climate change, environmental and social threats ¨Cpresent us with a number of dilemmas. Is it possible to maintain equality, open borders and universal welfare states in a situation with large waves of refugees and migrants? Is it possible to maintain open societies built on trust and tolerance in a situation with recurrent terrorist attacks? Can we maintain economic growth in a situation where climate change may threaten our very existence?

These are obvious dilemmas. But I am optimistic. Over the years, many times researchers and commentators have questioned the ability of this Nordic model to survive: after the oil crisis in the 1970’s; during the economic crisis of the 1980’s; and during the financial crisis of the beginning of this century. But the bumblebee has continued to fly. So far, the Nordic model has shown resilience. The Nordic countries have proved themselves capable of reform when needed.

Nordic climate-solutions at home and abroad

One concrete example of this innovative response is the Nordic response to the dilemma between climate change and economic growth. You probably know the Chinese saying: “When the winds of change blow, some build windbreaks, other build windmills”. In the Nordic countries we have built windmills - both literally and in abstract terms. Through green innovation the Nordic countries have proven that it is possible to secure economic growth and at the same time reduce carbon emissions. In fact, the Nordic countries have managed to secure a prolonged and dramatic decoupling of emissions and economic growth.

The Nordic energy cooperation contributes to stable and secure energy supplies and sustainable growth. And it helps meeting climate and environmental challenges through growth in sustainable energy and an ever increasing focus on energy efficiency.


In fact, according to the 2015 Global 100 ranking, 5 of the 20 most sustainable companies in the world are Nordic.The demand for environmental solutions from the Nordic governments has driven our companies to innovate and opened a global business potential.

I have noted with interest that green development and sharing is part of the new 5 year plan for China. This plan also outlines continued openness and participation in global governance and trade. This is very much in line with the positive Nordic experience.

The area of energy, climate and environment is an excellent example of the Nordic countries speaking with one voice on the European and global arena.

When president Obama received the five Nordic heads of state in the White House two weeks ago, he remarked that the Nordics “punch above their weight”. Acting and speaking together in the international arena is one reason for this. Speaking together we stand a better chance of being heard - and achieving influence, as we have seen on the Nordic imprint on the global climate agreements and many other areas of international cooperation.

Conclusion - what we may learn from each other

In light of the Nordic countries ability to stand together - and to reform when necessary - I am also confident that the Nordic countries are also ready to meet new challenges to the Nordic model of society.

So to conclude, let me sum up: I believe that this Nordic experience of regional cooperation may be of inspiration to Asian countries in a number of areas,

- Focusing on common values and similarities.

- Acknowledging differences and seeing them as an opportunity to learn.

- Seeking integration as a mean to create growth and innovation.

- Cooperating by consensus as a very robust way of decision making.

- Seeking innovative solutions to new challenges by working together

- Seeking influence in international arenas by speaking with one voice, sharing good solutions and contributing to the development of less developed regions of the world by humanitarian and development assistance.

- These are some of the experiences and values which we ¨C the Nordic countries ¨C can bring to the table in our co-operation with other regions, including Asia. I believe that we have much to offer. And we have much to learn.

The ancient Chinese culture focusing on human relations from the family to the society writ large is coloring the whole of East Asia. I am sure that we in the Nordic region can be inspired by this Eastern humanism as well.

The same goes for learning: the role of education in China and East Asia. There are certainly many different reasons for your economic success and continued fast development. One of them is the seriousness in characterizing your students, and also the excellent institutional facilities you are providing them with. In our educational and research cooperation we will seek inspiration from you.

And talking about economic success, your solid and vibrant cooperation between public institutions and the private sector has produced impressive results in the transformation towards green growth and in your fast growing physical and digital infrastructure.

There are certainly many more areas of China¡¯s great cultural heritage, your knowledge-based and futureoriented development, and your impressive economic achievement that inspires us, and that we can learn from. I therefore look very much forward to continue and intensify our cooperation.

Thank you.

(This article is edited based on the recording and has not been reviewed by the speaker.)