Unlike the rest of Europe, the Nordic societies are based on a common set of basic values. They may not all approach welfare provision in exactly the same way, but the similarities between the countries are sufficient to constitute a recognisable “Nordic welfare model”. The countries also will face almost all the same challenges in the future. Nordic co-operation facilitates the sharing of experiences across national borders and contributes to social innovation in the Region.
The Nordic welfare states are based on a shared political goal of encouraging strong social cohesion. The Nordic social model is renowned for the universal nature of its welfare provision, which is based on the core values of equal opportunities, social solidarity and security for all. The model promotes social rights and the principle that everyone is entitled to equal access to social and health services, education and culture.
This also applies to care for social outcasts and vulnerable groups in society. A central goal is to create opportunities for all to take part in the social life and in the decision-making process in society. The Nordic model is also characterised by strong ties between welfare and labour-market policy. The welfare system is mainly funded by taxes, which are relatively high in the Region.
We are relatively well-off compared to the rest of Europe. The levels of employment and flexibility on the Nordic labour market are high – as are the birth rates. Comprehensive and financially affordable child-minding services and care of the elderly enable women, especially the low-paid, to combine family and work.
It is precisely because the Nordic welfare states have largely taken over tasks such as these that women have been able to enter the labour market and the political arena to a greater degree than in other parts of the world. The Nordic Region is right at the forefront as far as gender equality is concerned.
There are also interesting differences between the Nordic countries in terms of how the welfare policies are organised.
For example, Denmark has gone further than the other countries in involving the private sector in welfare services and providing choice for users. The Danes are also notable for their so-called “flexicurity model” on the labour market, as well as for their emphasis on assimilation in immigration policy – as opposed to the integration strategy that characterises Sweden and Norway.
Iceland is considerably different from the other Nordic countries, as access to welfare services is to a large extent based on the “welfare-to-work” principle. In Finland, the voluntary sector has played a significant role in providing care for the elderly. In Norway, public-sector provision of welfare services has been more dominant than elsewhere.
The differences and similarities between the Nordic countries' welfare policies were discussed in the report '’, which was written by the think-tank Monday Morning for Council of Ministers in 2006.
The Council of Ministers' welfare-research programme, which ended in 2006, also took a closer look at the differences between the welfare systems.
One significant conclusion was that Nordic welfare provision is both more diverse and more complex than it might first appear to the outside world. However, the differences between the systems enable the Nordic countries to learn from and be inspired by each other's experiences. This is where the work of the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Nordic Council plays a central role.
The Nordic welfare model is based on innovation, and it is flexible – i.e. it is specifically designed to meet new challenges. The Region's ability to balance strong welfare schemes, high tax rates and economic growth has attracted interest from other parts of the world.
The Nordic welfare model is one of the most successful in the OECD rankings of different countries' economies. Gender equality, care of the elderly, health centres and hospitals are examples of areas in which the Nordic countries have special competencies that they can use to position themselves in relation to other countries. The Nordic Region has the potential to to be a global leader in the development of innovative solutions in the health and social sector – particularly in terms of services for the elderly, preventative medicine and health.
In an increasingly globalised world, the Nordic Region and the EU face more or less the same challenges. Welfare researchers and opinion formers agree to a great extent about the nature of these challenges –
e.g. the need for better care for the elderly, getting more people into work, improved retention on the labour market, maintaining the quality of welfare services, and promoting the integration of vulnerable social groups, especially immigrants.
An important task in Nordic co-operation is to focus on how the Region can refine the Nordic welfare model in order to compete in the global economy but maintain social cohesion.
The similarities between the social systems make it relatively simple for the Nordic countries to look at their neighbours and derive inspiration from their successes. The Council of Ministers has initiated a number of wide-ranging initiatives designed to stimulate the sharing of experiences and to further develop welfare policy. Planned activities include research, conferences, seminars and meetings. For example, the research institution NordForsk has earmarked DKK 15 million for a research programme on the Nordic welfare model, including an assessment of the global challenges that it faces.
Another important aspect of the Council of Ministers' welfare work is its efforts to boost dialogue and co-operation, both within the Region and internationally. This is done, amongst other things, by maintaining contact with European and international organisations such as the Council of Europe, the WHO and the Northern Dimension Partnership on Public Health and Social Well-being.
A further priority is closer co-operation with Northwest Russia in the social sector via the Council of Ministers' Knowledge Building and Networking Programme and other projects, which serve as important tools in promoting mutual learning across regional and national borders.
Nordic co-operation might be considered a kind of testing ground, in which positive experiences within the Region are harnessed for the benefit of all.
The family is an important area of co-operation in the Region. The family is a fundamental social community that characterises and shapes future Nordic citizens. A well-functioning family life is one of the most important prerequisites for people's well-being and quality of life. Nordic co-operation affects family issues from many different angles: the Nordic countries work together to promote children and young people's well-being, further develop the Nordic welfare model to guarantee safe living conditions for Nordic citizens, develop Nordic gender equality policies that benefit family life and, to an even greater extent, make efforts to improve older people's participation in society.