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PRESENTED BY THE NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERS

The Nordic way: ‘We must trust each other’

She grew up surrounded by water, stumbled into politics, and is now one of the most important political voices in the entire Nordic region. The Local finds out more.

The Nordic way: 'We must trust each other’
Nordic Council President Britt Lundberg (l) greets Greenland parliament spokesperson Lars-Emil Johansen. Photo: Nils Baum, Bureau for Inatsisartut.

Growing up on the Åland islands, the often roiling waters of the surrounding Baltic Sea were an ever-present backdrop for Britt Lundberg.

“We have always had a lot of seafarers – almost everyone who lives on the Åland Islands has relatives who work on the sea,” the 54-year-old politician explains.

But regardless of whether the seas were rough or tranquil, being surrounded by water meant that Lundberg and her fellow Nordic island dwellers were looking outward at the wider world that beckoned.

“We travel a lot and we know a lot about the world. We don’t see the sea around us as an obstacle or a border; we see it as a possibility to get somewhere. It links us to the rest of the world,” she adds.

‘If there’s a problem, you solve it’

These days, Lundberg finds herself linked to the world in a whole new way after having taken over as President of the Nordic Council in January 2017.

“The presidency of the Nordic Council rotates each year. I got asked if I wanted to represent Finland’s presidency in 2017 – and of course it’s a huge honour,” Lundberg says of her role with the inter-parliamentary body that coordinates cooperation between the Nordic countries.

Lundberg hopes to bring some Åland’s ‘can-do’ spirit to her work for the Nordic Council – a spirit that comes naturally to a place with fewer than 30,000 inhabitants, where influencing one’s own future may be easier compared to other places.

Furthermore, living in relative isolation also necessitates a certain degree of self-reliance.

Photo: Magnus Fröderberg/norden.org

“We’re a small society, but hard-working. If you can’t find a job, you create one. It’s very common to own your own company here,” she says.

“Everything is possible – if there’s a problem, you solve it.”

Indeed Lundberg says she always knew she could influence her own future.

“You know from the beginning that you can choose how your tomorrow will look. In most families there is someone engaged in politics – it’s a part of our everyday lives,” she says. “It’s very common for your shop keeper, dentist, or local farmer to be a politician in the evenings.”

The accidental politician

And while political discussions were never far away, Lundberg’s foray into politics might not have happened if it hadn’t been for her love of singing – and her decision to become a mother.

“My start was rather odd,” she admits. “When I had children I was very fond of singing with them and going to different cultural events.”

At one such event, Lundberg – who dreamt of having a career as a journalist – was approached by a representative from a local church who encouraged her to get involved in a church election campaign.

“He was anxious that decisions made by the church would cut into the culture,” she explains. “There were a lot of elderly men making decisions there and he wanted someone to be there to help fight for culture and young people.”

Lundberg was intrigued.

“So I said, ‘Okay, I can try.’ And I did. And I got elected,” she recalls.

And just like that, the 30-something mother who loved to sing launched what has become a political career that’s spanned more than two decades, taking her from local politics, to the Åland parliament, and now to the Nordic Council.

While Lundberg still spends most of her time passing laws in Åland’s capital city of Mariehamn, she now also spends a lot of time coordinating with her Nordic Council colleagues in Copenhagen.

Read more Tales from the Top of the World

“I work every day with the presidency even if I am situated in the Åland islands and my main work is in the parliament here,” she says, adding it may seem “a bit strange” that part of her job is representing Finland even though she’s from autonomous Åland.

“But my Finnish colleagues asked me if I could represent Finland. So that’s kind of special and an extra honor,” she says.

Speaking with ‘one voice’

While Lundberg grew up in the Nordics, her new role has helped her appreciate even more how cooperation among Nordic Council members – Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and the autonomous Nordic areas of the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and the Åland Islands – makes the region stronger.

“When you’re a bunch of small countries way up north in the world, it’s important to work together,” Lundberg says. “When we come together we have 26 million people – making us the 12th strongest economy in the world.”

Joining forces gives the Nordics an opportunity to be heard in places they otherwise might not.

“We can speak with one voice,” Lundberg says. “For example, in 2016 the leaders of the Nordic countries had a meeting in the White House with Obama – that wouldn’t have been possible if we acted individually.”

Lundberg points to the fate of her home of Åland as an example of what the Nordic spirit of cooperation can achieve.

In 1922 Åland officially became an autonomous Swedish-speaking region of Finland, maintaining its sovereignty and largely Swedish culture. The autonomy includes legislative powers covering a wide-range of areas that effect inhabitants’ every-day-life. Åland was also made officially neutral, and no nation is allowed to militarize the island.

Photo: Magnus Fröderberg/norden.org

“Åland has a very strategic location in the middle of the Baltic Sea, and both Sweden and Finland were keen on getting it,” Lundberg says. “When this discussion became more heated, the question was passed to the newly-formed League of Nations – preventing what could have become a new war.”

Lundberg believes the resolution on Åland’s status proves that compromise can settle regional disputes concerning territory or minority rights peacefully.

“An autonomous region can exist within a country and still have its own language and culture,” she says. “There are solutions without war.”

Hope for the future:  ‘A borderless North’

And it’s precisely that spirit of cooperation and peaceful problem-solving that has inspired Lundberg’s top priority while serving as Nordic Council President: creating what she calls a “borderless North”.

“For a very long time it has been important for the Nordics to integrate, to share our labour markets and education,” she explains. “Now people are moving more than ever, and we are working hard to be the world’s most integrated area.”

If a Nordic citizen wants to move to another Nordic country, the process is already relatively simple – the Nordic Passport Union of the 1950s allows citizens to travel and reside in other Nordic countries without a passport or residence permit.

“But there are still challenges – such as problems with pensions, or education credentials which aren’t automatically accepted,” Lundberg explains. “There are also problems with various branches. For example, the qualifications for electricians are different.”

In the Nordic Council’s next session with the Nordic prime ministers this autumn, Nordic Freedom of Movement will be at the top of the agenda.

“This is something we are working hard on, and the prime ministers will tell us what they have done to improve the situation and reach this freedom. We must trust each other – to become the most integrated region of the world.”

Click here to discover more Nordic stories

This article was produced by The Local Client Studio and sponsored by the Nordic Council of Ministers.

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader Question: Is there a Swedish equivalent of writing to your senator or MP?

A reader got in touch to ask whether there is a Swedish equivalent of writing to your senator or MP to protest, voice a political opinion, or raise a local issue. Here's how it works in Sweden.

Reader Question: Is there a Swedish equivalent of writing to your senator or MP?

People in Sweden do send letters to members of the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, but it doesn’t work in quite the same way as it does in the UK or the US.

Human rights organisations, pressure groups, and concerned individuals will frequently send individual letters or mount letter-writing campaigns to try to influence MPs on issues that concern them.

Sweden is a transparent society, so it is easy to obtain the contact details of MPs in the parliament. You can find emails for all 349 MPs here, or if you prefer to do it the old-fashioned way, you can simply pop your letter in an envelope and send it, with the MPs name at the top, to this address:

Sveriges riksdag,

100 12 Stockholm. 

For the human rights group Amnesty, for instance, writing letters to politicians is one of the main strategies. 

The big difference between writing to your MP in Sweden, and writing to an MP, Congressman, or Senator in the UK or the US, of course, is that MPs in Sweden do not represent a constituency in the same way. 

The UK has 650 constituencies, each with its own MP. Sweden, on the other hand, has 29, with the smallest, Gotland, having two MPs, and the largest, Stockholm, having 43. You can see a map of Sweden’s constituencies here

When citizens vote in general elections, they vote for a political party first, and only then vote for which of the party’s candidates they would most like to represent them, in so-called “personal preference voting”. 

The election authority then distributes the seats in each constituency to each party based on what share of the vote they got in that constituency. A further 39 adjustment seats, which are not tied to a constituency, are then distributed to make sure the number of MPs each party has in parliament reflects their share of the vote at a national level. 

READ ALSO: What are The Local’s reader questions? 

For the purposes of letter-writing, the important difference is that you do not have an MP in Sweden, but several, normally representing rival political parties. 

According to David Karlsson, a professor at Gothenburg University, who has written a paper on letters sent to MPs, most Swedes will have no idea who the MPs are who represent their constituency. 

“It’s very obvious and well-known in Britain who the MP is,” he points out. “Knowledge of who the local MP is in Sweden is very very low, very few people could name the MP elected from their constituency.” 

Another big difference is that MPs in Sweden tend to focus their attention more at the national level, and not to see their primary role as representing the interests of their local constituencies. They don’t hold “surgeries” in their local constituencies in the same way that MPs do in the UK, and are less likely to get involved in helping individual citizens solve local problems.  

Partly this is because what they need to do to get reelected is to retain the support of their local political party organisation, rather than the support of voters. Partly, its because MPs have very little power to influence their local municipalities and regions. 

“There is a big difference in how much [MPs in Sweden] can do. If people want help in their private, local cases, there is very little executive power in being an MP,” Karlsson says.  

As a result, people in Sweden are more likely to write letters to local municipal councillors or regional representatives, rather than to their MPs if they want help with personal problems and local issues. 

When Amnesty writes letters to MPs, they usually decide which MP to write to based on whether they are actively engaged in the issue at hand, or whether they sit on a certain committee, rather than on which constituency they represent. 

When Amnesty is campaigning on a local issue, however, they do sometimes still write letters to MPs based on the constituency where the issue is taking place. 

For instance, when a Romanian citizen living in Gävleborg was hit with heavy medical bills from the regional health authority because she had a baby in a local hospital without the required paperwork, Amnesty sent letters to MPs representing the constituency. 

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