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Will the Nordic Supermodel Evolve into a Union?

A COUNTERPOINT on "The Next Supermodel" in The Economist special report on the Nordic countries, print edition February 2, 2013


How does our country fare, to be honest? What about our Nordic neighbors? Obviously, in view of the unraveling crisis in Southern Europe and in the EU system, it is no surprise that the relative wealth and stability in Sweden and the Nordic countries attract global attention. But is it really true that our country is a fairytale? How do we as insiders relate to the rosy picture painted by one of the most influential weekly economic magazines? Have we as Swedes (perhaps descending from the Viking on the cover image of the issue, with horns and paraphernalia) earned their praise or should we remain modest and skeptical, devoting ourselves to the unrelenting work of improving our society, openly and honestly diagnosing its failures in an effort to finding efficient remedies for the future and for next generation?

After an email conversation with academic friends in the US, UK and in Canada (who are granted anonymity but thankfully honored) I tried to help my friends by answering their inquiry post reading The Economist laudation, eager to protect them from the sudden shock and disappointment they would all suffer should they prematurely decide to invade our country, blaming misrepresentations of the article under scrutiny.


Should we all move to Sweden? Sweden’s consensus model evolved at a time when survival in a demanding climate forced collaboration across social strata. Eventually a unique model of negotiation created an employment market on the basis of shared long-term interest among all parties (Saltsjöbadsandan, since 1938). Government confined its role to monitoring and facilitating the process until consensus between employers and employees was reached. The strength of the model was the resulting sustainability - in the long run in the best interest of the country, shared by virtually everyone. The challenge was limited to prolonging the horizon among negotiators. But today the challenge of immigration flows is different. The road to consensus is not so straight when ideals diverge. Until the country comes up with an updated model for negotiating divergences, tension is likely to rise and eventually erupt in social clash. Until then, silent constraints on freedom in this system will not be sufficient to mobilize the energy needed and incite a momentum of change.

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Can we move Sweden to us instead? The consensus model builds on cultural homogeneity and shared values that are easier to develop in a “regional leader”, a small to medium size country, than in a major power player on the global arena (such as US, EU or India). The larger a country is the more likely it is that other societal forces must be used to keep it together. The “natural democracy” of Sweden appears as a set of converging social forces all gravitating concentrically towards consensus: but it does not have merely one shared end-point of opinion. The model is very likely specific for the Nordic countries and not easily implantable in other countries with a different history and a wider span of cultural values. This issue is both a structural and cultural one and cannot so easily be simplified to a short formula.

What is the difference between Sweden and the rest of the Nordics? There is an evolving balance of differences and similarities. The rationale of its system had its ups and downs during centuries. Still, historian Gunnar Wetterberg envisions a process of integration and believes chances could improve for a “realistic utopia”, a union between the Nordic countries (Förbundsstaten Norden, The United Nordic Federation, 2010). Education, social systems, language, history and culture facilitate political convergence among these small but different economies. To succeed within 20 years, such a process would need to rely on principles of both similarity and complement. What has been recently lost and needs to be reconstructed is the sense of common belonging special to the Nordic countries in the early 20th century, as suggested by Björn Wittrock ("The Making of Sweden", in Nordic Paths to Modernity, 2012).

Can the Swedish (Nordic) model be useful to EU? Sweden and Switzerland are both successful small countries. But Sweden relies on consensus whereas in comparison the Swiss embrace more of diversity: Yet, the Swiss have developed an efficient process of compromising, a widely admired model of direct democracy. A greater tolerance among the Swiss in allowing “counterpoints”, a complex web of opinions, may well have made their federation model highly resilient. In view of this it might seem risky to compress European diversity to a narrower Swedish consensus. Instead, Brussels should learn the smooth process of compromise from Bern, not from Stockholm. Should trends one day turn unfavorable and thwart Nordic export incomes the strength of the Swedish model may come at the price of a sudden downturn. That is the cost of relying on global alliances instead of building on the advantages of resilient internal diversity.

What are the major obstacles risking future success of the Nordic model?

Leadership: Whether running a global corporation, leading a government or conducting a five star symphony orchestra--it all takes the same outstanding quality of leadership to achieve excellence in performance. Efficiency in the process of value creation, whether private or public, gets hampered by limited levels of leadership.

Politicization: Soft pressure on academe, commenced by Social Democrats, did not resolve but accelerated since their era. The temptation towards mainstreaming research could not be resisted. Research was reduced to an instrument of “consensus making” from the policy toolbox. The trend was visible in an endless series of duplicative projects adopting the same unilateral perspective in e.g. gender studies, all converging towards restating the mean.

Consensus: This kind of policy-making does not enrich societal dialogue with alternative interpretive perspective but serves the goals of political elite. Government is appointing rectors of universities and exerting pressure on key people paralyzed by double loyalties. Friends of the power elite are readily assigned to leading posts in “political science”. In such a system of “consensus convergence” debates in key issues quickly become anemic. The political “friends” are the few and likeminded who willingly populate the helm of large state funds – a major power source of Swedish research and development.

Transparency: The recent eruption of a series of corruption scandals seems to have unraveled only the tip of an iceberg. Bold journalists penetrated the opaqueness of politicized organizations seemingly exempt of laws of public transparency (e.g. KKS, SSF, and Tillväxtverket). Their boards of directors had lavishly spent millions on extravagant festivities while disregarding needs for reform. A few heads rolled but after few headlines in the boulevard press the story soon buried in oblivion.


Despite all fine differences among the Nordic countries, the common ground of shared history helped develop these countries toward incremental implementation of consolidated social values. The welfare state provides fertile conditions for further integration. The pace of political integration, however, was soon retarded by a lack of committed vision among the political elite. This “local friction” is a severe impediment to any non-governmental initiative. The prevailing perception is an obstacle to any further effort or commitment. There is a lack of drivers for promoting a creative cultural dialogue among the Nordic peoples that can nurture valuable visions for a future unification. Therefore, such a process of integration will likely remain powerless for long and rely mainly on private and non-profit efforts.

History will determine to what extent such efforts can gain traction. Change will probably take on true momentum only under severe pressure from a distressed Europe that appears as a less attractive alternative than a Nordic Union to be.;