Kalmar Union, ca.1400

Time for New Kalmar Union?

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Risto E. J. Penttilä

Finland and Sweden’s membership in NATO is a boost for Nordic cooperation. Is it time for a new Kalmar Union? If so, should the Baltic states be part of it?

The original Kalmar Union combined the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden in the Middle Ages. It ended exactly five hundred years ago in 1523. The end was not amicable. The “Stockholm Bloodbath” in 1520 is still remembered as the low point of Nordic relations. 

Over the following centuries the Nordic region saw wars and famines, clashes of empires and the rise of nation states. Finally, in the latter part of the 20th Nordic states began to be seen as examples of orderly, well-functioning societies. The concept of the Nordic Model was born. Yet, the Nordic region was not unified geopolitically. Finland had a friendship and mutual assistance treaty with the Soviet Union while Norway, Denmark, and Iceland belonged to NATO. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union changed the world and the Nordic region. Finland and Sweden joined the European Union. Norway and Iceland did not. Denmark had been a member since 1973. Even more significantly, the Baltic States regained their independence. The independence of the Baltic States led to a new format of regional co-operation. In the beginning it was called “5+3”. Five was the number of Nordic States. Three was the number of Baltic states. Later, it became known as the Nordic-Baltic Eight. The Baltic States, especially Estonia, were keen to join the Nordic Council as formal members but the old Nordics did not warm to the idea. They did not want to fully embrace the Baltic States. Co-operation was enough. In 2004, the Baltic States became members of the EU and members of NATO. The need for a Nordic geopolitical anchor disappeared. 

In 2009, Gunnar Wetterberg, a Swedish historian, published an article in Dagens Nyheter in which he suggested that the traditional Nordic states (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) would set up a new version of the original Kalmar Union (1397-1523). According to Wetterberg, Margrethe II of Denmark would be the perfect head state for the Nordic federation. The was no mention of the Baltic States in the proposal.

Wetterberg’s idea of new Nordic Union was politely but firmly rejected by the heads of Nordic governments who happened to be gathered for a meeting of the Nordic Council of Ministers when Westerberg’s article was published. This was no surprise. There was no appetite for a Nordic federation or a confederation among the politicians or the voters. Yes, the Nordic region should become the “most integrated region in the world”, but there was no need for a new political structure.

Yet, the idea of a New Kalmar Union refused to die.  In 2017, Eirik Winter, a banker with a long international career, called for” the United States of the North” to be established. The new Kalmar Union would have a joint central bank, but the countries would remain independent. It would be a confederation rather than a federation. “Together we would be 27 million people with a combined GDP that would be the tenth biggest in the world. We would also get a seat at the G20.” His vision did not include the Baltic states as part of the New Kalmar Union.

In 2018, Nordic West Office (whose CEO I am) published a report called “New Nordics: Modern Bridge-Builders.” There were two big ideas in the report. First, the concept of the Nordics should embrace Estonia because it had become a de facto Nordic country. Two other Baltic states and other like-minded countries would be welcome to join the evolving Nordic family later. Hence, the name “New Nordics.” Second, the concept of bridge-building did not refer to the relations between Russia and the West. It referred to relations within the West. The report argued that in the post-Brexit Europe, the New Nordics should be bridge-builders between the US, Britain, and the European Union. 

Then came the Pandemic. The Nordic countries chose different paths. Estonia tried to coordinate Covid-19 policies with Finland, but Helsinki was not interested. Consequently, Estonia chose the other Baltic States. “The Baltic Bubble” was created in May 2020. It was a travel-restricted area in Europe and consisted of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The Nordic countries did not manage to reach common policies. However, civil servants and experts in the Nordic states co-operated continuously during the crisis. There was no political alignment, but plenty of pragmatic co-operation.

In 2022, Jyrki Karvinen and I published a book called Long Way to NATO (“Pitkä tie Natoon”). It described Finland’s 30-year journey from the termination of the Finnish-Soviet Friendship, Co-operation, and Mutual Assistance Treaty in 1991 to Finland’s NATO membership application in 2022.  We argued that the membership of Finland and Sweden in NATO is a historic opportunity for Nordic cooperation. The Nordics should aim to have a strong voice within NATO and within the European Union. We called this project New Kalmar Union with a reference to Gunnar Wetterberg’s original idea. However, we did not argue for new political structures. Instead, we argued that there should be a “Nordic bloc” in NATO and in the European Union. The Baltic countries would be welcome to join. 

The idea of a Nordic bloc (or any bloc) within NATO or the EU is a controversial one. The argument against blocs is that member states should work for the good of the entire organisation and not for the interests of a restricted group of countries. Ideally, that would be the case. In real life, blocs or interest groups are part and parcel of all international organisations. Within the UN, there are blocs, contact groups, and regional groups, political groups, and caucus groups. In the European Union, the best-known bloc is the French-German axis. However, it is by no means the only grouping. The Visegrad Group or the V4, is another well-known example of a bloc that seeks to promote the agenda of its members. How about NATO? Is there group for a Nordic bloc within NATO? This is how the Finnish governments sees it: “Once Finland and Sweden have joined NATO, all of the Nordic countries will be NATO members. This means that the Nordic countries can advocate together for issues important to them within the Alliance.” https://valtioneuvosto.fi/en/finland-and-nato Updated: 4.4.2023.

What would deeper Nordic cooperation look like? It would look more like the G7 than the EU. The leaders of these countries would meet a few times a year to coordinate NATO- and EU-policies. No new treaties would be needed to achieve this. However, it might be useful to give Nordic cooperation a bit of structure. The question is, how could this be achieved? The answer is simple. By updating the Helsinki Treaty from 1963.

The Helsinki Treaty is the guiding document of Nordic cooperation. It sets the framework for cooperation in the Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers. The last time the original text was amended was in 1995. Much has happened since then. In my view, the Helsinki Treaty should be updated as soon as both Finland and Sweden have settled comfortably into their roles as members of NATO. The aim would be to create a framework for deeper Nordic cooperation that would help the Nordic countries to “advocate together for issues important to them within NATO and within the EU. It would also be a good moment to expand the Nordic family of nations. Let’s bring the Helsinki Treaty to the modern era. The time is ripe for a New Kalmar Union!