Federalism or a unitary state?


Federalism is a system based upon democratic rules and institutions in which the power to govern is shared between national and provincial/state governments, creating what is often called a federation. In a federation the component states are in some sense sovereign, insofar as certain powers are reserved to them that may not be exercised by the central government.

The Nordic countries

However, a federation is more than a loose alliance of independent states. The component states of a federation usually possess no powers in relation to foreign policy, and so they enjoy no independent status under international law. A federation often emerges from an initial agreement between a number of separate states. The purpose can be the will to solve mutual problems and to provide for mutual defense, or to create a nation state for an ethnicity spread over several states.

If the Nordic countries are united in a federal state, it will mean that each country will retain a large amount of self-determination and have its own constitution, parliament, government and courts, while being united in matters of defence and international affairs while retaining a federal government to standardize, and make laws on matters which affect the country as a whole, and on matters where it would be unhelpful for the law to be different in each state. In short: change will be minimal.

Unitary state

A unitary state is a state governed as one single power in which the central government is ultimately supreme and any administrative divisions exercise only powers that their central government chooses to delegate. This is how each individual country are governed presently.

A unitary state is sometimes one with only a single, centralised, national tier of government. However, unitary states often also include one or more self-governing regions. The difference between a federation and this kind of unitary state is that in a unitary state the autonomous status of self-governing regions exists by the sufferance of the central government, and may be unilaterally revoked. While it is common for a federation to be brought into being by agreement between a number of formally independent states, in a unitary state self-governing regions are often created through a process of devolution, where a formerly centralised state agrees to grant autonomy to a region that was previously entirely subordinate. Thus federations are often established voluntarily from ‘below’ whereas devolution grants self-government from ‘above’.

It is often part of the philosophy of a unitary state that, regardless of the actual status of any of its parts, its entire territory constitutes a single sovereign entity or nation-state, and that by virtue of this the central government exercises sovereignty over the whole territory as of right. In a federation, on the other hand, sovereignty is often regarded as residing notionally in the component states, or as being shared between these states and the central government.


Creating a federation poses far less threaths and areas of contention, but at the cost of a less efficient and less unified state. Current borders will still preside and create boundaries between the nordic people. A unitary state will present a larger obstacle that requires significant popular will to be successfull, but will reap benefits in the way that it provides uniform laws, a simpler and more flexible structure and a less extensive government. In my opinion a unitary state will be the best alternative.

If the Nordic Union is to be ruled through a unitary state the power currently vested in each individual country will be abolished and moved to the highest state level, this includes questions in education, transport, defence, foreign relations, health and every other aspect where the national government currently exercises power.

Administrative divisions

NUTS3 regions of the nordic countries

Whether the Union is to be ruled through a federation or union state there will have to be some thought put in to the administrative divisions of the Union.

The Nordic Countries has had a history of very similar administrative divisions characterized by many municipalities with small populations. This has been the case since all the countries are relatively large in area with a small popualation to boot. The most prominent exception is Denmark who recently went through a major administrative reform and sliced it’s counties from 13 to 5 regions and it’s municipalities from 270 to 98. Denmark might be in a special position with it’s comparatively small area divided by similar size popualation as Norway and Finland, but the results of the Danish reform has nonetheless emerged as a desireable in the eyes of the other Nordic Countries.

In Norway it is broad agreement that the current system with 19 counties with various resposibilities and shared power with both municipalities and the state, and sometimes with administrative non-politically elected regions. The unclear roles of each level of administration has lead to large amounts of confusion and bureaucracy, and an effort to clear up various responsibilities is being undertaken. An administrative division reform is in the making where a new system of 4 or 5 regions closely resembling todays “landsdeler” of North, Mid, West, East and South a likely new model. This style of administrative divisions has been proving effective in Denmark, and it is not unlikely that it will also spread to Sweden, Finland and Estonia who currently also suffer from a highly uneffective divisioning of their administration.

The current administrative divisons of the Nordic countries:

Country Regions/Counties Municipalities Dependencies/External Territories
Sweden 21 290
Denmark 5 98 Faroe Islands
Finland 19 320 Åland Islands
Norway 19 428 Svalbard
Jan Mayen
Bouvet Island
Peter I Island
Queen Maud Land
Estonia 15 213
Iceland 8 74
Total: 87 1423

Controlling the new union through adding a new level of government on top of the existing levels is the easiest solution. This will create the least amount of restructuring and realignment for the population and it will lead to fewer scenarios that can lead to discontent with the population. With solution both a federal union and a unitary state is possible. In a unitary state a common fear is that Sweden as the larger of the Nordic Countries will eventually resume it’s traditional role as regional hegemon. For a uniaty state it is vital that it is the top level of government that dictates and delegates power downwards. Also it needs to be clear that the regions is of equal standing in the new union.

In addition the current countries different parts also have different wishes and concerns, and sometimes those wishes are more similar across borders that within each country. Historically the northern part of Norway has been more inclined to wish similar policies as the northern parts of Finland and Sweden, especially in matters concerning their joint indigenous people. Aslo, the western parts of Norway might have more political wishes in common with the Icelanders in regards to fisheries and marine policy. If the current nation states remain intact in a new union, the wishes from a region within a country will first need to get attention and accept within that country to be able to be heard in the Union. This means that even though multiple regions want the same thing, they will all have to battle through their respecitve countries (which often can consist of parts opposing the wish). A system that better attend to the regions wishes across borders might be desireable in a new Union.

A Union of Regions

Divisons names.jpg
17 hypothetical regions of a Nordic Union

By dividing the larger countries into smaller regions to better accomodate the subtle cultural and political differences within the larger countries a lot of potential probelms can be avoided. This can be done by removing the country status of the administrative divisions and consolidate the regions/counties of the various contries into larger regions closer resembling the NUTS2 size of region as per the European framework.


One option is to divide the the population of the northern countries into 17 regions of various size and population as shown on the picture and detailed in the table below. The boundaries are built around historical, cultural, linguistic and political boundaries already existing. The exact boundaries of the regions needs to be a result of choice from the inhabitants, but I believe that a division of the Nordic countries in this manner will be better equipped to satisfy the democratic need of the inhabitants than the current composition.

Name Former Region(s) Area Population
Jutland North Denmark Region
Central Denmark Region
Region of Southern Denmark
33,135.10 3,069,688
 Denmark Capital Region of Denmark
Region Zealand
 23,817.94  4,012,888
 Götaland Halland
Västra Götaland
73,341.80 3,179,198
Svealand Stockholm
98,499.00 4,158,028
Westrobothnia Västerbotten
175,174.70 754,351
Northland Nordland
112,975.13 474,863
Trønderlag Sør-Trøndelag
90,595.53 563,659
Westlands Møre og Romsdal
Sogn og Fjordane
58,532.14 1,317,398
Eastlands Østfold
111,009.12 2,825,116
Ostrobothnia Lapland
163,771.15 1,028,140
Savonia and Karelia Kainuu
North Karelia
North Savonia
South Savonia
South Karelia
92,045.29 779,675
Finland Pirkinmaa
Central Finland
Finland Proper
Tavastia Proper
80,868.41 3,615,145
Estonia Estonia 45,227.00 1,315,819
Iceland Iceland 103,001.00 325,671
Faroe Islands Faroe Islands 1,399.00 49,709
Greenland Greenland 2,166,086.00 56,370
Åland Islands Åland Islands 1,580.00 28,666

This is of course only a preliminary idea which needs to be expanded further in order to know exactly the benefits of each regional divisions. A few areas that need further concideration are already present with the proposed division, f.ex. Scania and Blekinge being a part of the same region as the Capital Region of Denmark and the Zealand Region even though the population and economical power of southern Sweden is more than enough to constitute a seperate region in a Nordic Union. The current proposal is grounded in the idea that further integration across the Öresund will benefit the effected areas more as a single region. Some of the same arguments can be made for a few of the other regions, but there is a point to making an effort to limit the amount of regions.

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