Sweden, Finland, Norway et al have become a highly prosperous and stable region. They epitomize Europe's society-first democracy and capitalism. They lead the world in many endeavours of Human development, science and social development. This page is witness to much of that success. There are some prices and oddities; all countries have issues and problems; some crime, some very expensive living costs and the occasional (oddly) high suicide rate.
“The Nordic region [...] has the world's highest taxes and most generous welfare benefits. And yet Sweden, Finland and Denmark (Norway's oil sets it apart) have delivered strong growth and low unemployment, and rank among the world's most competitive economies. Nordic companies are strong in technology and research and development. Their health-care and educational systems are much admired. And, unlike other European countries, most Nordic states run healthy budget and current-account surpluses. Sweden, whose 9m people make it by some way the biggest Nordic country, is a particular favourite. A year ago the Guardian, a British newspaper, said it was the most successful society the world had ever known.”
Many European governments have looked to Scandinavia for models and inspiration; delegations have gone to study their education systems, government organisation, social methods and economic policies.
“The truth is that there is never a single economic model for other countries, even the Nordic states, to follow. Neither membership of the EU nor adoption of the euro seems necessary: Sweden is in the EU but not the euro, Finland is in both, Norway is in neither. Different countries have different strengths. Mr Bildt puts forward his own tongue-in-cheek recipe for the perfect "Nordic model", stretching the geography: Finland's education, Estonia's progressive tax policy, Denmark's labour market, Iceland's entrepreneurship, Sweden's management of big companies and Norway's oil. The right conclusion, in other words, is that it is wisest not to look for a single-country model at all, but just to take best practice wherever you find it.”
The Essential World Atlas describes the geographical features of Scandinavia: "Scandinavia is the wide peninsula that divides the Norwegian Sea from the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Bothnia. [...] The Scandinavian Peninsula is dominated by a mountain chain that runs for almost its entire length. In the west, the peaks and plateaus drop steeply to the sea. To the east, they incline more gently towards Sweden's coastal and southern lowlands, and the flat, lake-studded terrain that covers most of Finland. Separated from Sweden by a sliver of sea, Denmark consists of fertile plains and low hills. In stark contrast, far-flung Iceland is a mountainous, mostly barren land that continues to be fashioned by earthquakes, volcanoes, and Europe's largest glaciers."2.
Various definitions lead to different lists of which countries are Scandinavian or Nordic. Daftly, some people even get offended by others' definitions. Scandinavica.com tries to clear it up3:
Geographically speaking, the Scandinavian peninsula is a territory shared by Norway, Sweden and northern Finland. The Scandinavian countries would therefore only be Norway and Sweden.
Linguistically, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish have a common word called "Skandinavien" which refers to the ancient territories of the Norsemen, and for most people in these three countries "Scandinavia" consists only of Sweden, Norway and Denmark. This one is considered to be the most commonly accepted definition of "Scandinavia". However, Iceland was also a Norse territory and Icelandic belongs to the same linguistic family as Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. And so does the Faroe islands. Therefore, you will find some people for which Scandinavia is Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. And finally, Swedish language is also spoken in Finland and reciprocally, Finnish and Sami languages are spoken in Sweden and Norway. Again, we have a new definition of Scandinavia, which would include Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland.
Culturally and historically, the north of Europe has been the political playground of the kingdoms of Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Finland was a part of the kingdom of Sweden and Iceland belonged to Norway and Denmark. Besides a common history, politically and economically these five countries have followed a similar model known as the Nordic welfare state since the 20th century. One more time, these five countries are perceived as an unity by some and therefore called by the same name: "Scandinavia".
What are the "Nordic countries"? In such a state of linguistic and geographical confusion, the French came to help us all and invented the term "Pays Nordiques" or "Nordic Countries", which has become the most standard term to bring together Scandinavia, Iceland and Finland under the same umbrella.
We saw above that Mr Bildt (Prime Minister of Sweden 1991 to 1994) described Estonia as part of Scandinavia (2006 Sep)1, but this claim remains largely ignored. As Estonia was once 'part of' or a colony of Sweden, it borders the Gulf of Finland, and as it shares many cultural, some linguistic, and economic factors with Scandinavia, some have called for Estonia to be considered Scandinavian4. It is traditionally considered one of the Baltic countries, like Latvia and Lithuania. The colonial history of Sweden provides a 100-year window where Estonia was 'scandinavian', but this is a tenuous and arbitrary connection.
In the 16th century, Sweden slowly increased their grasp of the eastern shores of the Baltic and during the rule of Erik XIV from 1567 Sweden saw northern Estonia steadily absorbed into their empire. Gustav II Adolf from 1611, invaded Latvia and consolidated Swedish rule of the eastern side of the Baltic. During the reign of King Karl XII, who ruled the Swedish empire from 1697 to 1718, Latvia and Estonia were lost to the Russians after a defeat at Poltava in 1709.5. The public will require time and much convincing if Estonia is to be considered Scandinavian rather than Baltic.
Kingdom of Sweden
|ISO3166-1 Codes||SE, SWE, 752|
|Life Expectancy||81.439yrs (2011)|
|Gross National Income (GNI)||35837.298204788 per capita|
|Population||9.440747 million (2011)|
“The Best Country in the World! Listed as the 6th best country in the United Nations Human Development Report 2005. Sweden in 1919 was part of the general European rush towards female emancipation, although it was not a world leader in equal votes for women it was still one of the first 10% of the world to arrive there. In modern times, Sweden has the best record for gender equality across a range of issues. It has the worlds' sixth highest life expectancy. The Economist Quality of Life study states that Sweden is the fifth best place to live. From 2001 to the 2003-2004 and 2006 reports, the World Economic Forum has shown Sweden is consistently the third most economically competitive country. Its government was the first, in 1987, to recognize same sex partnerships. One of the least obese countries (10.4% of the population, perhaps 8th least obese in the developed world). Sweden has the best 'high literacy' rate in the world, and not just by a small margin! For a developed country, Swedes do not smoke much and do not drink much; both far less than Western averages. Sweden ranks top in allowing open access to scientific research. In 2005, out of the worlds' most developed countries, Sweden was fourth most generous in giving aid to developing countries, and in 2006 was the 3rd best country for the poor. It has the 7th lowest level of computer software piracy.”
Sweden is one of the world's best recyclers, and Stockholm hosts the world's second-largest hydrothermal cooling system, saving megawatts of energy that would otherwise be used to electrically power air conditioning8.
“Every country has its stereotypes and clichés but, let's face it, who wouldn't want to live up to the image that Sweden has in the outside world? A nation of tall, blonde, attractive types, famously open-minded and nonaggressive (well, at least in the recent past). A country full of athletic folk [...] at the cutting edge of technology (think Ericsson), well cared-for by the state and living very comfortable lives: flash cars parked in the garage (think Volvo and Saab) [...]. Dig even slightly below the glossy surface and you'll find more to be impressed by. [...] Sweden is also home of the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Kingdom of Denmark
|ISO3166-1 Codes||DK, DNK, 208|
|Life Expectancy||78.826yrs (2011)|
|Gross National Income (GNI)||34347.3543305278 per capita|
|Population||5.572594 million (2011)|
“Only listed as 14th in the world by the United Nations Human Development Report, Denmark is nonetheless a consistent high-ranker in many of the moral issues examined on this page. The World Economic Forum lists Denmark as the 4th most equal country in terms of gender, and was beaten by only four other countries in the historical granting of equal votes to women. The Economist's World in 2005 survey had Denmark rank as the ninth best country for quality of life. The fourth most competitive economy. Gay rights were attained in the 1990s, beaten only by a handful of states. One of the least obese countries in the world. The 3rd best country in the world for high adult literacy. One of the best countries towards the environment; one of the best recyclers. Open Access to scientific research speeds up scientific discovery and advances humanity, Denmark is the 7th most open country in the world. When it comes to accepting asylum seekers, Denmark accepts more than anyone else (74%). It also gives aid third most generously, and does not tie its aid in to its own economy. The Center for Global Development says that Denmark is the second best country at helping the poor of the world. Denmark has the fifth lowest rate of computer software piracy.”
Denmark's Labour Market:
“Unemployment, at 4.5%, is at its lowest in over 30 years, inflation is below the euro-area average and growth is faster. The budget surplus hit 3.9% of GDP in 2005. It is Denmark's exceptional performance on jobs that has attracted most attention. [...] The government cannot take all the credit, but many economists fulsomely praise "flexicurity" - a peculiarly Danish blend of a flexible labour market, generous social security and an active labour-market policy with rights and obligations for the unemployed.”
The Economist (2006)1
Kingdom of Norway
|ISO3166-1 Codes||NO, NOR, 578|
|Life Expectancy||81.097yrs (2011)|
|Gross National Income (GNI)||47557.0990297471 per capita|
|Population||4.924848 million (2011)|
“Impressively listed as the best country in the United Nations Human Development Report every year since 2001. The fourth country to allow women the same voting rights as men, in 1913 and coming in 2nd best in the world for gender equality overall. The 12th best life expectancy in the world. The third best country to live in for quality of life. One of the world's most economically competitive countries, coming in annually around 6th (2003-2004) and 12th (2006). It was the second country to officially recognize same-sex marriages, granting almost full legal equality for gay partnerships in 1993. Impressively Norway is the fourth least obese developed nation in the world, only 8.3% of the population are obese. Norway has the second highest high literacy level in the world, second only to Sweden. Norway gives a higher percentage of its National Income as foreign aid than does any other country, and was the 4th best country for the poor in 2006.”
However its capital city, Oslo, is the most expensive city to live in in the world (2006, 2007) 11. Norway's wealth comes largely from its off-shore oil deposits, and it very wisely invests much of this for future generations12.
Republic of Finland
|ISO3166-1 Codes||FI, FIN, 246|
|Life Expectancy||79.977yrs (2011)|
|Gross National Income (GNI)||32437.7816046461 per capita|
|Population||5.38477 million (2011)|
“Listed as the 13th best country in the United Nations Human Development Report 2005. One of the first countries to give women equal votes with men, beaten only by New Zealand and Australia in 1893 and 1902 respectively. Judging by a range of criteria Finland is in modern times the fifth best country for gender equality. 19th best life expectancy. The most economically competitive country according to the 2001, 2003, and 2004-5 reports from the World Economic Forum (and 2nd place to Switzerland in 2006), with the USA as their hottest contender and previous title-holder. Finland was not one of the first countries where legal equality for homosexuals were attained, but in 2002 it is still ahead the majority of the countries in the world that have not yet got there. Perhaps one of the least obese countries, 10th or so in the developed world. Finland is the fourth best country in the world for high literacy. Open access to scientific research is beneficial to humanity; Finland is the sixth most open country in the world. The 7th best country for the world's poor, in 2006. It has the 4th lowest computer software piracy rate.”
“[Despite having been in] one of the worst recessions any European country has seen [...] their small country (5m people) is at or near the top of most league tables: [...] first in the OECD's world ranking of educational performance; second-highest share of R&D spending in the European Union. The country is reversing its demographic decline: its fertility rate is one of the highest in Europe. A Finnish group even won this years' Eurovision song contest.”
The Economist (2006)13
The 'real lesson' to learn from Finland is organisation and responsibility. Its government makes tough political decisions that are unpopular but good for the long-term health of the country13, and has a powerful green lobby, showing responsibility for both self-care and world-care.
“Around two-thirds of Finland is covered in forest and about a tenth by water. In the far north the White Nights, during which the sun does not set, last for around 10 weeks of the summer. In winter the same area goes through nearly eight weeks when the sun never rises above the horizon.”
Finland is also the most expensive country in Europe, the most violent society in the EU and has the least dense motorway network (is this good or bad though?). It is a small country of only 5 million people which are largely ethnically homogenous 13. With this small size and simple make-up, Finland faces fewer problems than other developed countries, so its success is partially an accident. It is also fortunate to be home to one highly successful company, Nokia, on which it largely depends13.
Taxes (% of GDP)
On Income, Wealth, etc. (not trade).
|EU Average (EU25)||13.8||12.5|
The Nordic states consistently have the world's highest taxes1 (see chart), pursued half-heartedly by Belgium and the United Kingdom and the most expensive living costs. Those who live there tend not to complain, as they have a very high quality of life, but, immigrants and outsiders could easily be overwhelmed.
An issue of the future is the demographic shift towards an older population - the 'demographic crises', something all developed countries are having to face up to. Although low unemployment may sound good; a combination of a labour shortage and a greying workforce means that many Nordic countries' economies have are being throttled. As a result, wages will rise as companies cling to their existing employees, and therefore exports will suffer due to an increase in the cost of goods.
“The Swedish response has been the most radical: a proposal that will virtually guarantee entry to any non-EU worker with a job offer from a Swedish employer. [...] The labour minister, Tobias Billstrom, says foreign workers are needed to counter a greying population and shrinking labour force.”
|Belief in God (2005)19|
The standard nordic religious structure combines a secular (non-religious) society with an anachronistic state-backed established church, for example the Lutheran church of Finland. Most people sign up for this church in order to obtain clergy for weddings and funerals. So, although 85% of Finns sign up, it "need not imply a deep belief in the tenets of Martin Luther"17. The local sociologist Kimmo Ketola says that "Finns are neither very attached to religion, nor very opposed to it"17. This is evidenced by the explosive popularity of a website designed to make it easy to resign from the state church. Set up by The Freethinkers of Tampere in 2003, by 2007 over 60 thousand people had used the site to resign and in total the Lutheran Church lost 2.6% of its adherents from 2000-200618. Over a generation of 60 years at the current rate, the Church will lose nearly a third of its membership by 2060.
“The Freethinkers of Tampere created a web site, Eroakirkosta.fi ("eroa kirkosta" roughly translates to "resign from the church"), in 2003 to assist people to resign from the state church to further the goal of separation of state and church, and to promote a secular society. The web site became a success; in 2006 79% of all resignations went through the site. The same figure was 69% in 2005, and 39% in 2004.”
With distinct pagan roots in Nordic warrior religions Nordics were never subjugated by Christian armies and the Inquisition never gained a hold20. They are now thoroughly secular societies. The sociologist of religion, Steve Bruce, says that Scandinavia became secular largely because the established churches represented the élite, "the masses found themselves little served by a state church which drew its professionals from the upper classes and advanced the ideological perspectives of the socially dominant"21. I have chartered the massive decline in religiosity in the UK, but Norway has much lower Church attendance22.
On top of that, Scandinavia, in particular Norway, has cultivated and spawned some powerful anti-religious movements. The Black Metal movement that grew to infamy in the 1990s hit the national newspapers with almost one-hundred church burnings, and espoused a venomously anti-Christian doctrine. Its adherents worshipped Odin, the Norse gods, and Satan. They wanted not only the continued decline of Christianity, but a revival of Nordic paganism. In addition, Scandinavia has a healthy population of LaVeyan Satanists.23
In Norway a government-appointed commission in 2006 proposed that the Lutheran Church be disestablished, similar "to changes made by the neighbouring (Lutheran) Church of Sweden, in 2000", the UK's National Secular Society reported:
“CHURCH OF NORWAY VOTES TO DISESTABLISH ITSELF
The Lutheran Church of Norway has voted to separate itself from the state after 500 years of establishment. Sixty-three of 85 synod delegates voted that the church should no longer be referred to in the country's constitution as a State or national church. The synod wants the church to be founded on a separate act passed by parliament. The general synod said it should itself assume all church authority now resting with the king and the government.
"The synod's decision is historic", said Jens Petter Johnsen, director of the Church of Norway national council. "What matters is the relationship between Church and people, not between Church and State. We will do our utmost to strengthen the service of the church and with our people."
[...] The changes in the State Church system will require a revision of the country's constitution and some officials see 2013 as the earliest date. The State-Church system was established in Norway in 1537, when the Danish king endorsed the Lutheran reformation.”
National Secular Society newsletter (2006 Dec 01)
Sweden (2003). 2nd edition. Lonely Planet guide. Original edition in 2000 by Graeme Cornwallis. Published by Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd, Australia. The Amazon link is to a newer version than the one I've used.
Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults (1996). Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK [Book Review]
Eurostat. The Statistical Office of the European Community, Luxembourg. http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat.
Eurobarometer 225: Social values, Science & Technology (2005). Published for the European Commission. Accessed online 2008 Sep 01.
Statistical Pocketbook 2006 (2006).
Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
History of Western Philosophy (1946). Quotes from 2000 edition published by Routledge, London, UK.
Religion in Secular Society (1966). Penguin Books softback first edition.