Nordic countries can fill EU leadership void after Brexit

Nordic countries can fill EU leadership void after Brexit
© Getty Images

What would Europe look like if Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland took on a stronger role of leadership after Brexit? These countries have traditionally been partners to the U.K. and have supported their colleagues’ initiatives and decision-making, not only because they have common values but also because the U.K. was protecting their interests in Brussels.

This might all change once the U.K. leaves the EU. With U.K.’s exit, the Nordics will lose one of their key allies on EU level and will have to rethink their position in Brussels. Brexit requires a shift in strategy for the Nordics and presents an opportunity for leadership. They need to stand together to fill the vacuum and gain influence over the future of Europe.


Brexit’s impact on Europe is not clear, as many crucial elements of their departure have not yet been agreed upon. Although the Nordics have different priorities — differing security and defense concerns and distinct ideas of how much Europeanization should occur — there are more matters where the Nordics think alike, such as trade, innovation and entrepreneurship, and climate.


What gives them an advantage is their pragmatic politics based on common values, which moves their cooperation forward. As a cohesive unit, their ideas and strategy of leadership has a unique opportunity to take a step forward as a powerful political model for the rest of the EU countries.

The politics of Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland could have an indirect impact on the other EU countries. Together they should lead by example and expand their model of integration to new regions in the EU. The digitalization and a Nordic digital market is an example of practical cooperation that works. They could team up with Estonia and its Baltic neighbors to promote e-governance for the whole EU.

Nordic leadership is not only important for modernizing the EU and economic growth but also because their tradition of stability and rule of law. This is very much needed in an era of increasing European authoritarianism in countries like Hungary and Poland.

Their priorities should be liberal leadership by example and to promote free trade and the deepening of the internal market. This includes effective implementation of decisions and less excessive bureaucracy. Another longstanding priority on their agenda is to make the EU system more transparent. If the five countries can lead as a coherent unit on some of their strong areas, they will also have the opportunity to transfer values and good governance to the individual EU member states as a side effect.  

The Nordics can carve out more influence in the EU and fill the void left by the U.K. through their cooperation. To do so, the countries will first need to intensify their cooperation both outside and within the EU. They should focus more on their strengths rather than limitations. Now is the opportunity to show that their similarities are not exaggerated, and they should team up with other states in order to not weaken their position in Brussels.

Rather than simply stepping in to replace the U.K., a difficult feat for the Nordics, the bloc should also take advantage of French President Emmanuel Macron’s momentum. The pragmatic leaders should team up to promote liberal ideas.

They should also push for less regulations and directives in order to make the EU more efficient. These leaders can find alternative ways when things are not working as they used to. A leadership with different ideas and solutions is necessary for both Europe and the transatlantic relationship.

In Washington, the Nordics are often seen as efficient leaders who can push for more straightforward politics. If the Nordic countries appear more united in Washington and work together on matters that they care about, they will contribute to safeguarding the transatlantic relationship. The U.S. should see Nordic leadership as a bridge to the EU, replacing the potentially lost U.K. connection to the EU. Since the U.S. is important to the Nordics, this could be a moment for the countries to be the bridge-builder.

The U.K. will still be an important partner to the US and the Nordics, but the U.S. should take advantage of its good partners in the north of Europe for influence in the EU. Also, the Nordics are of interest for the U.S. because they are pro-free trade and pro-market economy, and they have a different view on European regulation and lawmaking. Nordic leadership would serve U.S. interests in Europe and this could strengthen the transatlantic relationship.

The Nordics already work well together, for example within health care, education, and labor market — now it is time for them to use their cooperation to step up to fill the void of leadership left in the EU after Brexit. The infrastructure is in place, with the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Nordic Council as a platform of cooperation. The Nordics should increase the communication and coordination to take a stronger position in Brussels.

There has to be an adjustment to the new reality of a the EU without one of the largest partners, the U.K., and if the Nordics can find a way to make the most of their commonalities the cooperation may benefit Europe as a whole.

Maria Tilander is a visiting fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University SAIS in Washington, D.C.