The Nordic Region Explained

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From the mountains of Norway to the volcanic landscapes of Iceland, from the historic cities of Denmark to the lakes and forests of Sweden and Finland: this is the Nordic region of Europe.

The Nordics is a term often thrown around when discussing Scandinavia and northern Europe. Let's take a look at which countries comprise the Nordic region, and what makes them different.

Northern lights in the Nordic region of northern Europe

Northern Europe is a vast region of outstanding natural beauty, a cold albeit changing climate, progressive politics and, depending on whether you believe the surveys or not, the world's happiest people.

Living in Norway means you are also a part of Scandinavia, and the wider Nordic region. Those terms are often used interchangeably, but the definitions are significantly different. A geographical and cultural region of northern Europe, the Nordic region comprises five countries and three autonomous territories.

What is the Nordic region?

The Nordic Region consists of five countries: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. Although not countries in their own right, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Åland Islands are also included in the definition. The combined population of the Nordic region is around 27 million.

Now, let's take a closer look at each of these:

Map of the Nordic region with flags

The main five countries in the Nordic region

Denmark is the southernmost country in the region. It's a compact, flat nation made up of a peninsula and a series of islands, large and small. The country is densely populated especially on the island of Zealand, which is home to Copenhagen, one of the region's biggest cities. Curious to know more? Read some fun facts on Denmark.

Finland is known for its lakes and forests, which cover much of the country. Most of the country's population lives in the milder south, especially along the southern coast. This region is known for mobile phones (thanks to Nokia) and the creation of the Moomins. Read some fun facts about Finland.

Iceland is a volcanic island that's geographically remote from the other four principal islands in the region. The population is small as much of the scenic island is uninhabitable. The lava fields and glaciers do, however, attract great numbers of tourists. Iceland is a republic with a directly elected president. Read some fun facts about Iceland.

Norway is a speciality of ours. Just look at the title of our website! For most people, Norway is best known for either its oil and gas production or its spectacular mountainous scenery, or both. For more on Norway, you can read pretty much any other article on the site. Perhaps the best place to start is this article on Norway facts.

Sweden is the Nordic region's largest country in terms of both physical size and population. It is traditionally the most industrialised country of the five, known for its steel, iron and car production. The capital city Stockholm is the most populous city in the region. Want to know more? Start with these facts about Sweden.

Other Nordic territories

The Faroe Islands is a north Atlantic archipelago that functions as an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark. To discover what life is like on the islands, check out the excellent Faroe Islands podcast or read these facts about the Faroe Islands.

The old lighthouse on Mykines, the Faroe Islands
The old lighthouse on Mykines, part of the Faroe Islands.

As with the Faroe Islands, Greenland is also an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark. The westernmost part of the Nordic region, this enormous land mass—mostly covered in ice—is geographically part of North America. However, it has been politically and culturally part of northern Europe for more than 1,000 years. Read more about Greenland here.

Perhaps the least known part of the region, the Åland Islands is an autonomous, Swedish-speaking territory of Finland. The archipelago contains thousands of islands, but over 90% of the 30,000 population lives on the largest island, Fasta Åland. Find out more about the autonomy of Åland here.

The Nordic cross

All five countries in the region along with the Faroe Islands and Åland use the same design on their flag. Known as the Nordic cross, the design features an off-centre cross, with an optional thin border on the cross itself.

Its origin is Danish and the distinctive design is said to represent Christianity. According to a regulation for Danish merchant ships, “the two first fields must be square in form and the two outer fields must be 6/4 lengths of those.”

Despite the name, the flag is not exclusive to the region. Many regional flags within the Baltic nations Latvia and Estonia use the design, while there have been campaigns within Estonia to adopt the design for their national flag.

The Nordic cross flags

The flags of the Scottish archipelagos of Shetland and Orkney also feature the Nordic cross design, recalling their Nordic origins. Many other countries, territories, islands and regions from all over the world also make use of the striking design.

The Nordic Council

Now for the boring bit. The Nordic Council of Ministers is a forum to facilitate cooperation across the region. Their vision is to work together to “become the most sustainable and integrated region in the world” by 2030.

It may sound a little like the European Union, but there are significant differences. Firstly, members of the Council are not directly elected. They are members of the national parliaments and are nominated by the party groups.

Another major difference is that the full Council of Ministers meets just twice per year. At these forums, Nordic politicians make decisions on issues, but they are not binding decisions. Instead, the individual Nordic governments are strongly encouraged to implement them.

The Nordic Council is led by the Secretary General based in Copenhagen. At the time of writing, the former Swedish MP and governor of Jämtland County Britt Bohlin holds the post.

While this formal decision-making takes place infrequently, there is plenty of ongoing work conducted through committees and party groups. Two example committees are one on knowledge and culture in the region, and one on sustainability. You can find out more about all of them here.

The Nordic model

Rising inequality is one of the biggest social and economic issues of our time. Given that the five Nordic countries are some of the world’s most equal on a range of measures, it makes sense to look to them for lessons in how to build a more equal society.

The flags of the Nordic nations

When doing this, the phrase ‘Nordic model' is often used to describe the economy and society.

But what does that actually mean? Well, first things first, it does not mean socialist. Regardless of the current make up of their governments, all five Nordic nations are all social-democratic countries with mixed economies.

The countries are not socialist in the classical sense because they are driven by financial markets rather than by central planning. That being said, the states play a strategic role in the economies.

According to one researcher, the success of the Nordic countries shows that major egalitarian reforms and substantial welfare states are possible within prosperous capitalist countries. You can read more on the researcher's take on the Nordic model here.

Shared culture across the Nordic region

Is there such a thing as Nordic culture? Yes, absolutely. From the ‘Nordic noir' genre of crime literature and TV to the sports and activities named after the region, this corner of northern Europe has made its mark.

Nordic Combined

Understandable given the climate, winter sports are dominant throughout much of the Nordic region. One curious discipline that combines ski jumping with cross-country skiing (not at the same time!) is named Nordic Combined.

Regulated by the International Ski Federation (FIS), the discipline was invented in Norway and competitions from the country lead the way in many major events. At elite level the sport has traditionally been male only, however times are changing. Women were included in the FIS Junior World Championships from 2019, while women will be included in senior competition from 2021.

Polygonal colourful ski jumper

Nordic noir

The literary genre of dark crime stories with bleak Nordic settings lifts the lid on the darker side of life in the north. It's hugely popular within the region, but also has a passionate following around the world.

Many popular TV shows and movies have been spun out from the success of the books. The recent release of Wisting based on the novels of Jørn Lier Horst is the latest in a long line of adaptations.

Stieg Larsson’s international bestseller The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo and subsequent novels drew many people into the world of Nordic noir. Also referred to as Scandinavian crime fiction, it's typically defined by brutal crimes, grim settings, a tortured protagonist and a strong plot.

While the settings give a gritty sense of reality to the novels, many series are criticised for the high numbers of murders in small communities, which is the opposite of reality. Click here to read more about Nordic noir, including links to some of the most popular works.

Nordic walking

If you enjoy walking as a way of keeping fit, why not try Nordic walking? Simply put, it's a total body version of walking, using specially designed walking poles that resemble ski poles.

A couple Nordic walking in the countryside

While not much more difficult than walking, the exercise has been estimated to produce as much as a 46% increase in energy consumption when compared to regular walking. The use of the poles–and therefore more of the body–benefits many core muscles.

The pastime is popular around the world especially in the USA and UK. According to Britain's NHS, regular Nordic walking can lower risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, stroke and some cancers.

Nordic startup culture

The HBO series Silicon Valley poked fun at startup culture, but also brought it into the mainstream. Few doubt that San Francisco, Palo Alto, Mountain View, San Jose and so on are at the centre of all things startup.

For many years there was a battle to become the next Silicon Valley. The online publication Slate startled many people in 2015 by proclaiming: “The most exciting startup scene you have never heard of isn’t in Seattle, or London—it’s in Scandinavia.”

Major names to have got their start in the region include Spotify, Minecraft, Candycrush Saga, and iZettle all got their start in the region.

The article quoted a principal at investment firm Northzone on what makes the region so strong. She said the region has a “unique blend of a strong engineering, design, and data culture that goes back many generations, a small tech savvy local market which is a great test bed before going global, and most importantly a product-driven problem solving mindset that starts with the individual and goes all the way up to policymaking.”

Getting around the Nordic region

Norway, Sweden and Finland are vast nations. Throw in Iceland's remoteness from the rest of the region, and you'll soon see why aviation remains the number one way of moving around the Nordics.

SAS planes at Oslo Airport in Norway

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), Norwegian, Icelandair and Finnair are the principal carriers in the region. In particular, the first two run multiple daily service that link the Nordic capitals with one other. On a typical weekday, SAS alone operates 28 flights between Oslo and Copenhagen, 14 each way.

However, rail is catching up. The flygskam (flight shame) movement is taking off in Sweden, although it's been slow to catch on in other countries.

Its compact, flat landscape means the rail system in Denmark is well-developed, quick and efficient. Landscape, however, makes things much more difficult elsewhere in the region. The mountains of Norway and Iceland make any investment in high-speed rail infrastructure difficult and cost-prohibitive at best, impossible at worst.

Norway's largely domestic airline Widerøe has made no secret of its desire to invest in electric aircraft. They are involved in research projects in the technology as are several of the other regional airlines.

About David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a professional writer on all things Scandinavia.

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2 thoughts on “The Nordic Region Explained”

  1. Great information for anyone interested in the Nordic countries as well as a lesson in geography. You do keep your subscribes well informed David and I thank you for that!.

  2. Hi there! Nice Blog. I’m an Indonesian and I’m an international relations major currently trying to make a thesis revolving around Nordic Council and Nordic Council of Ministers but I find some difficulties. Even after surfing around the official websites for hours and reading journals and books in English (Mostly from the 90s), I still don’t understand a lot of things especially the specific since the official documents are mostly in the official Nordic Languages. Do you have any suggestion? thank you kindly


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