The Nordic region’s most important resource and defence is our well-educated population

Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers, Karen Ellemann, sees cooperation in education in the Nordics and The Baltics as one of the mainstays of the cultural and professional community. In that light, Nordplus is an important player, and she would like to see even more people become involved in Nordplus projects.

By Joan Rask

"We are fully aware of the huge value created through Nordplus programs, i.e. with regard to their very broad spectrum and how they deliver."

So says Karen Ellemann, Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers says. It is just a little over a year since Karen Ellemann took over primary leadership responsibility within the Nordic Council of Ministers and, at the same time, waved goodbye to a life as an active member of Danish politics. The past had seen her in several ministerial positions, minister for Nordic cooperation and a member of the Nordic Council. She could easily have continued in that career.

"When I saw that a new secretary general was needed for the Nordic Council of Ministers, I got that bubbling feeling in my stomach, wow - I would really like to do this full time," says Karen Ellemann, who in the same sentence explains that she does not miss her old life as a politician.

She sees it as an advantage that she has many years’ knowledge of the entire Nordplus organisation and of the political dynamics. Karen Ellemann's first four-year term as secretary general will be very different from her predecessor's, because high on the agenda of national governments now is an accelerating climate crisis, demands for a green transition, increased demands for welfare, the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic’, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the war in Gaza and a completely different security situation for the Nordic and Baltic countries.

"We all have deep concerns and frustrations about the geopolitical situation. In that sense, it is important that we in the Nordics are resolved to be a strong region, that we prioritise strong cooperation and that the Nordic governments support this with funding and continue to think it is a good idea," she says.

But does it make any sense to spend money on the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Nordic Council with all their underlying programmes?

"Not everything can be weighed and measured, but the effect - the benefit to the Nordics is really big and really significant. We are countries that have something very valuable in common; our strong democracies and in many areas strong, well-functioning institutions and also strong, deeply committed civil societies," says Karen Ellemann.

Cooperation is changing

Everyone who is interested in the Nordics knows that there were challenges in the Nordic family just a few years ago.

"A crisis is the best opportunity for development, and the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that there is room for improvement. Therefore, it is also my ambition that we continue to build on our good cooperation and make it even better, so that together we can withstand future crises. These are also the political indications I get from our countries", says the Secretary General.

She is extremely aware that this can change, and so can the prioritisation and distribution of the funds that the countries provide each year for Nordic cooperation. As it is now, close cultural cohesion carries great weight, but where does that leave the many educational activities in Nordplus, which in this light are tiny?

"If Nordplus is not Nordic in a broad sense, then I don't know what it would be! The task of the Nordic institutions is to deliver on the vision of becoming the best integrated and most sustainable region in the world, and I clearly see that Nordplus is part of the infrastructure on which all our official Nordic cooperation is based. I don't know any government in the Nordics that is not a supporter of lifelong learning," she says.

Most recently, the Nordic Council of Ministers has delivered a huge piece of work on Nordic dietary advice that is based on solid expert knowledge and professional input from all Nordic countries on nutrition and health. This time it was put together with recommendations on environmental considerations.

"It is the researchers' best recommendation as to what, for example, meat does to your intestines, your state of health, and how we can get proteins in other ways than via meat. I'm no longer a politician, but I bring knowledge to the table, and I share something that sets the agenda in our countries," says Karen Ellemann.

It is well known that the basis for creating new knowledge is a well-educated population, skilled teachers and that learning is part of all societal processes. Some can be weighed and measured, while others are about upbringing and values. The teachers who choose to get involved in a Nordic and Baltic education project invariably give themselves more work and many put in a degree of effort that goes beyond the norm. Karen Ellemann has a simple message for them:

"Thanks! Keep going - you are an indisputable success and your work has huge value.”

Lifelong learning together with the Baltics

Nordplus is one of the few programs that equates Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia with the other Nordic countries. This means that all Baltic educational institutions have exactly the same opportunity to apply for educational projects as the Nordic countries and the autonomous regions.

That system was put in place 16 years ago, and it has become part of Nordplus' DNA. In the other programs under the auspices of the Nordic Council of Ministers, there is only one ministerial council with equal Baltic membership, namely the Nordic Council of Ministers for Digitalisation, which was formed in 2017. In addition, there is a Nordic-Baltic mobility program for culture. The question is whether the Nordic family should accept that Nordplus has paved the way for cousins from the Baltics to be invited more often.

"I can clearly see that it might be possible - that the Baltic countries get even more involved in joint cooperation. It's not relevant at the moment,  but I am deeply grateful that they are there. I think we have a duty to do that, and it is not only the Baltic countries that benefit from cooperation. On the contrary! It is very inspiring for us to see how they work and develop," says Karen Ellemann.

In the Secretary General's view, it would be irresponsible to take cooperation with the countries that share a border with Russia too lightly. This knowingly pulls the old Nordic members and their common working language in the direction of even more internationalisation, where English becomes the de facto working language in several contexts.

Language fitness for beginners and experts

The formal working languages in the Nordic Council of Ministers are the three main Scandinavian languages, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. In official contexts, things are interpreted into Icelandic, Finnish, Greenlandic and/or English depending on the situation. This is not the case when participants meet for Nordplus projects and for the many other programs, as here there is no money for interpreters, so many resort to English, and there are some who would like the working language changed to English.

"It is clear that when I participate in meetings where one of the participants does not speak a Scandinavian language, we use English. But I don't see us moving away from the Scandinavian language community, that would be a huge loss! I know it causes difficulties, but yes, it's worth it!” she continues.

Karen Ellemann experiences for herself how the pace of conversation automatically slows down when the participants speak different Scandinavian languages, and that there is a common acceptance that everyone can interrupt and ask people to speak more slowly or for sentences to be repeated.

Everyone who works across Nordics knows that English is of course spoken when there are participants who do not speak one of the three Scandinavian languages. The difficult thing is the grey area, especially for the Finnish, Icelandic, Faroese and Greenlandic participants who are not necessarily fluent in a Scandinavian language. It is often an extra challenge for them to participate in conversation. So how does Karen Ellemann tackle that challenge herself?

"You have to take a view of the situation, because it must not exclude people! This is exactly why everyone has the opportunity to switch to English. I insist that it must not become an either/or scenario. I think one can say quite honestly and straightforwardly that we have something valuable in the Scandinavian language community that others should not be angry about, i.e. saying that it is unfair that we speak these languages," she says.

Love and defence

There is no doubt that Karen Ellemann is enthusiastic about the Nordic and Baltic region, and that she speaks and understands more languages than most. Nevertheless, it’s challenging for her and difficult for her to find the words that best describe what many people experience when they interact with people, institutions and companies in the Nordics and Baltics.

"There’s such a strong vein of enthusiasm, together with an interest and love for one's nearest neighbours. A kind of attitude to life and joy towards the region you are a part of - and which at the same time shares the Scandinavian language that enables most people to make themselves understood. Think how amazing that is!

Karen Ellemann was originally trained as a teacher and taught at a Danish primary school for a few years, but she has never come across Nordplus through her work as a teacher or as a school student. Even so, she was struck by Nordic lightning when she was in year 5.

"It was a youth meeting in Haugesund, organised by twin cities and in a typical format;  knowledge creates friendships. I came home and thought it was the coolest thing in the world and fascinating, because we could chat together like that," she says.

The joy of the Nordics accompanied her through school, high school and teacher training, and it still burns happily, and she would like to see more children introduced to their neighbouring countries at an early age.

Nordplus cooperation receives over 10 million Euros annually, the vast majority of which goes to education and mobility projects for children and young people. Karen Ellemann hopes that in the future many more people will experience a Nordic and Baltic project via Nordplus – even if you live in a sparsely populated area.

“There are some areas where we have not succeeded in getting the potential of joint education projects out there more widely. I would ideally like there to be a little more targeted focus on those areas. I know that Nordplus is already looking at this – I also know that it is extremely difficult and that there is competition for funds,” she says. 

For Karen Ellemann, it is not just about broadening out geographically. She would like to see Nordplus spread into sectors that do not have a tradition of Nordplus projects, because the cultural identity is so fundamental to the Nordic and Baltic democracies' ability to cooperate.

“Even though we have many resources in the Nordic region and in the Baltics, our most important resource is the raw material that each individual is made of and also our most important defence in a tumultuous time!” says Karen Ellemann. 

Read the article in Nordic (Danish)

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