24 / 11 / 2023

Future of the Nordic Region in NATO

Both Jens Stoltenberg and the Norwegian Defense Commission emphasize the need for improved east-west transport routes in the Nordic countries. We believe it’s important to include a Nordic perspective in the debate on national transport plans.

The Norwegian Defense Commission, led by former Minister of Justice Knut Storberget, presented a report on May 3 after an extensive referral process. The background is dramatic; there is war in Europe, and our large neighboring country to the east is the aggressive party. Many European countries are enhancing their security and allocations to their defence forces. Finland is already a member of NATO, while Sweden is in the process of joining. This creates an entirely new foundation for shared security in the Nordic countries.

As the Director of the Kvarken Council EGTC, a cooperation platform encompassing regions in both Finland and Sweden, and for Rana Utvikling business development agency on the Norwegian side, we actively contribute to the discussion on the role of the Nordics in NATO. Our work has so far mainly focused on industry, business development, and transport along the E12 corridor, spanning three countries. As our common future within NATO becomes increasingly relevant, we are now highlighting key messages from a seminar during northern Norway’s Europe Days on November 23. 

The aforementioned Norwegian Defense Commission’s report emphasizes new opportunities to strengthen defense in both Norway and the entire Nordics while addressing various challenges. An important aspect is the need to move capacity faster and more efficiently across the northern regions. The report describes a significant change in Norway’s role; with Finland and Sweden joining NATO, Norway will evolve from an end station to a transit point for allied reinforcements to the entire Nordics.

Stronger Cooperation and a Nordic Transport Plan 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized earlier this year, on Swedish TV, the importance of strengthening east-west transport links in the Nordics. The war in Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the need for robust and efficient transport routes to quickly move supplies and forces. This is particularly relevant for the Nordic countries, whose infrastructure largely focuses on north-south connections. 

To meet these challenges, we must develop a more coherent and secure transport infrastructure that connects the Nordics from east to west. This means not only improving existing road and rail connections, including those leading to NATO’s ports, but also exploring new transport routes and connections. Such strategic development would not only serve our defense needs but also promote economic growth and regional integration. Here, the Nordic countries and NATO must collaborate much more closely. In the national transport plans, there must also be a Nordic transport plan shaped by the new security policy landscape.

Focus on Finland 

In the northern Nordic region between Finland and Sweden, there exists a cooperation platform, the Kvarken Council EGTC, which is ready to work towards a fixed connection across the Kvarken Strait, spanning the 70-kilometer shallow archipelago in the Gulf of Bothnia between the cities of Vaasa in Finland and Umeå in Sweden. 

Currently, the E12 route (from Mo i Rana to Helsinki) over Kvarken is served by a modern ferry, which is the only link between Sweden and Finland along the long stretch from Stockholm to Haparanda. This ferry is crucial, yet insufficient to ensure readiness, redundancy, or efficient transfer of high capacity in crisis situations. Alternative, stronger, and faster connections are needed, as evidenced by the war in Ukraine.

Finland’s government programme already includes a proposal to investigate a fixed connection across Kvarken. This E12 connection would represent the largest road shortcut in the Nordics ever and would dramatically shorten the journey from several ice-free Norwegian Atlantic ports to central Finland. 

Niklas Eklund, Professor of Political Science at Umeå University, criticized Finland and Sweden during the Wasa Future Festival last autumn for thinking about the future only one parliamentary election period at a time. The Nordics must think more long-term. Transport possibilities from the ice-free ports in Norway, through Sweden, and over to Finland are crucial for building long-term security. Niklas Eklund also expressed that it would be a good idea to do what the Chinese are currently doing – making some infrastructural development that attracts more people, increases the population, and stabilizes the infrastructure in peacetime. So why not build a bridge?

Nordic Connector 

The Nordic Connector project involves a fixed link across the Kvarken between Vaasa and Umeå as well as the reinforcement of the E12 corridor and other routes in an east-west direction. This will significantly strengthen NATO’s west-east connections in the Nordics. Additionally, a large airport is being built near the E12 in Norway and close to the border with Sweden. Another important hub in this development is Storuman, located between Mo i Rana and Umeå. In Storuman, two important railways intersect, the Inland Line and the Cross Line, along with two European highways, E12 and E45. This development of the E12 corridor is not only strategic for the growing green industry and mineral processing, but it is also crucial for security and readiness, especially considering NATO’s presence in the region. 

Nordic Connector aims to strengthen ties between the Nordic countries within NATO. This initiative, encompassing a fixed link between Vaasa and Umeå and a comprehensive upgrade of the E12 route from Helsinki to Mo i Rana, holds significant strategic importance. We emphasize the importance of considering these aspects in the ongoing debate about the Nordic role in NATO and the national transport plans. We can create a stronger, more interconnected Nordic region through the Nordic Connector project.

Mathias Lindström, Director of the Kvarken Council EGTC
Ole M. Kolstad, Director of Rana Utvikling