A narrative from Germany.

Lisa Vollmer (Berlin).

Lisa Vollmer, polical activist and urban researcher from Berlin, talks about the existence of many social movements at the municipal level in Germany.

Nordic region report: Four similar but different countries.

Steve Rushton.

Steve Rushton is a London-based journalist and researcher. His writing appears in Equal Times, OpenDemocracy, Bella Caledonia and Minim on topics including municipalism and climate justice. In summer 2021, he worked for Cities for Change, connecting with emerging municipalists in the Nordic countries and UK.

The mainland Nordic countries – Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland – are similar enough to compare, but conversely so diverse it is essential to contrast them. Broadly, the four countries’ social democratic systems are defined as the ‘Nordic Model’, including using progressive taxes to pay for strong public services and welfare. The countries have relatively strong unions and worker’s rights. They generally score highly – even top – on many social indicators, with strong education systems, low prison populations, low inequality rates and so on. Currently leading this charge this has led Finland to be dubbed “the happiest place in the world.” Yet this Nordic Model is often romanticized; these places are not utopia: they still face social, economic and ecological crises.

When it comes to economics, Sweden is an outlier as it has shifted furthest towards neoliberalism and inequality. Norway is globally unique, a petrostate where some revenue is shared through its sovereign wealth fund. To take its responsibilities to tackle climate change, Norway must stop drilling and reimagine its economics. Whilst Finland, followed by Denmark, continues to do better than most other countries around the world for most of its population, although Finland is less prosperous than its neighbours due its history.

Politically, the four countries have better functioning democratic systems when compared to many other European states. Using proportional representation, there are generally around 8 parties, with a strong Green and Left parties, which arguably have kept the SDP from capitulating so much to neoliberalism, least so in Sweden. These countries are renowned for their higher levels of women in positions of political power, Finland again is currently leading. Memes about the country have spread globally of the feminisation of Finnish politics, with all five coalition partners (SDP, Left, Greens, Swedish and Centre) led by women; however, again this image could overstate Finland – and by extension the Nordic Countries. There might be more representation, politics at a national level is done moreso by consensus and coalitions, women may have stronger rights, however violence against women, sexism and the patriarchy continue.

Geographically the region stretches widely. To the south, Denmark borders northern Germany in mid-Europe. (Denmark also includes Greenland, but here the focus is the continental Nordics.) Whereas, Sweden, Norway and Finland are long, stretching to the Arctic Circle. Most of the population of these three countries lives more southerly. All three have indigenous Sámi population, whose lands were colonised and whose rights are still impacted by extractivism and repression. Issues include Arctic oil drilling (Norway) and other destructive or extractive practices that erode these peoples ways of life. Comparatively, the Nordic countries are generally homogeneous and white, again least so Sweden and to some extent Denmark. Yet all these countries face a similar populist anti-migrant and at times far-right threats, which has manifested itself in political gains for – far and hard – rightwing parties.

Another differentiation is the approaches to Covid-19. Sweden tried a social liberal approach that failed tragically, whereas neighbouring Finland was proactive and is one of the least devastated countries in all of Europe. Denmark and Norway also have relatively low death rates per person.

Norway, Sweden and Finland all have Sámi Parliaments, or Sámediggi (Northern Sámi). Norway’s Sámediggi formed in 1989 in Kárášjohka, this country has the highest population of Sámi of 80,000 – although the actual figure might be higher and in the other countries as people with Sámi heritage and culture are often discounted and repressed. The Swedish Sámi Parliament was formed in 1993, in Kiruna, like the others it is responsible mainly for upholding Sámi rights and culture. The Finnish Sámi Parliament is in Inari, constituted in 1995. The Sámi area that straddles the north of these three countries is called the Sápmi.

Across Sweden, Denmark and Norway there are two tiers of local government: county councils or regions, comprising municipalities. The OECD describes Denmark as “the most unitary decentralised country of [the 38] OECD countries”. Swedish local government also has a broad range of responsibilities, as does Norway, although the OECD notes: “Spending autonomy is limited for social welfare, health and education sectors which are closely scrutinised by the central government.”

Finland only has one tier of local government, municipalities, except for the autonomous Åland Islands and the Sámediggi. The 313 Finnish municipalities averaged approx 17,500 inhabitants, which is more than Norway (12k), but far less than Denmark (58k) or Sweden (34k). Successive Finnish national governments have tried and failed to implement another regional tier, however in June 2021 the Finnish Parliament passed a law so 21 regions will take over health and social care by early 2023. Whether this will enable privatisation of services is a concern for many Finns. Until then, the signal tier of Finnish local government has a broad range of responsibilities and autonomy.

The vast majority of the Nordics’ population live in urban areas, ranging from Norway 80%, Finland 84% to Denmark and Sweden both over 85%. The four capital’s metropolitan areas account for around 1 million people each, beyond that the countries only have a handful of larger towns with many small towns. The big cities are generally the most politically progressive spaces, whereas small towns are more connected to the rise of right wing populism. Of course, this is not to say that the far-right does not hold rallies in big cities, nor is it to say that you will not see leftist struggles in rural places.

Towns and cities can also be the sites of political contests with ramifications for the whole country, or beyond. For instance, the global school strike started in Stockholm by Greta Thunberg, before spreading across the world. The national government of Finland has also implemented a policy of housing for everyone, known as Housing First, that is ground-breaking. Homelessness in Finland is at some of the lowest levels anywhere in the world. This has been down to collaboration between national governments, municipalities and the third sector – and it is noteworthy for many more southerly municipalist movements. In Denmark, since the 1970’s there has been a strong growth of renewable wind cooperatives, meaning that Denmark is ahead in the journey to get off fossil fuels. The Danish cooperative wind farms connect to a legacy of cooperatives in the country’s agricultural past.

After 9 months of EMN surveying the Nordic countries and asking potential social movements and institutional actors only two organisations self-defined as municipalist. Allt åt alla is a national network of autonomous organisations under the banner Everything for Everyone. In Malmö, southwest Sweden, the local entity of this movement has been working on the right to the city, including campaigning for a rent freeze and community events with a theme of reimagining the city. Demokratisk Omställning is a promoter of municipalism in Sweden. It has arranged two well attended conferences focused on municipalism and with international municipalist movement speakers in 2017 and 2018. They initiated a Swedish delegation to the first Fearless Cities, translated the Fearless Cities book into Swedish, co-arranged the ten weeks course with Färnebo Folkhögskola, continuously write and report about municipalism on their website and have now set up a new campaign site for this purpose, promoting the book and offering to give talks on the subject and help local initiatives and study groups forward. This small group is a prominent and explicit advocate of Municipalism in Sweden.

Overall, there are few organisations talking about municipalism or self-defining as such. However, there are some movements working on issues connected to municipalism. This is most strongly viewed in Sweden, followed by Finland – two countries where participants engaged in the recent decentralised Cities for Change forum of Spring 2021. Beyond community and cooperative energy in Denmark, no groups are yet to appear on the radar for Denmark and Norway. However, there are social movements where potential participants could be interested in municipalism in the future across all four Nordic countries. Potential spaces to galvanise municipalist energy include the youth groups of left and green party e.g. summer camps, the Fridays for Future and ever-escalating climate and ecological movements. Another space is the struggles against facism and advocating for rights, including the LGBTQ+, feminism, migrants rights movements.

In Swedish towns there are also municipalities that have been taken over collaborations running outside the political party structures, such as in Hudiksvall and Svågadalsnämnden. Plus there are movements that somewhat connect to municipalism, for instance Digidem Lab, who work to improve citizen participation and cyklopen is a consensus ran community centre in Sweden interested in the urban commons. Likewise in Finland there is a network of people organising around the idea of Doughnut economics, a theory popularised by academic Kate Raworth. This concept has similarities with municipalism, including the call for a transformative and feminist politics. A network of doughnut economic advocates organised an event in the Cities for Change forum, providing a platform to introduce municipalism in Finland.

The importance of these potential allies is that across the Nordic area Municipalism is not a often discussed political concept or pathway, yet, but there is scope to seed this idea or connect it to similar ideas such as the commons, doughnut economics, rights to the city, intersectional feminist struggles and no border struggles. To this end, it would be useful for further exploration of potential allied social movements in Denmark and Norway, whilst continuing to network the energy in Sweden and Finland with the rest of Europe.