The Nordic nations tend to be table-toppers on global measures of equality, development, sustainability and liveability and, despite the impact of the financial crisis, these countries remain at the forefront of all that is forward-thinking and progressive. Nevertheless, despite a history of relative isolation, the world has come knocking at Scandinavia’s door in the shape of immigration and climate change, impacting the political order and posing serious questions for the region’s present and future.

Immigration

Exacerbated by the financial crisis, when bailouts of several European nations raised questions in the media and parliament about whether Scandinavians were being made to pay for the sins of others, the relatively rapid influx of immigrants to formerly rather homogeneous Nordic societies has raised tensions in recent years.

Anti-immigration and far-right political parties have gained substantial portions of the popular vote and a polarisation of local opinion raises the question of whether the region’s famed tolerance was just a veneer. Much of the debate has been focused on the 2017 terrorist attack in Stockholm by a failed asylum seeker cited by politicians across the region as evidence of the need for tighter controls. On the other side, Anders Breivik’s 2011 massacre of Norwegian teenagers or Finland’s troubled history with guns could be seen as powerful evidence that local extremism is a bigger problem.

There has always been a divide between Scandinavia’s liberal cities and its more conservative countryside and settlement of refugees in largely rural areas has brought global issues to remote doorsteps. For some, particularly older generations, the perception of overwhelming immigration, combined with the sharp decline of churchgoing in recent decades and the technological development of modern society, has led to worries about the loss of traditional values and culture. How the Scandinavian countries manage these perceptions and this transition will be key in coming years.

Environment

Scandinavia is a model of sustainability, with high – 100% in the cases of Norway and Iceland – renewable electricity output, a firm and longstanding commitment to recycling, stringent environmental certifications and lots of investment in green technology. Winter heating bills add to the overall carbon footprint, but in general the region is an example for the world. Firm government commitments have pledged to make most of the Nordic nations carbon neutral within a few years.

Nevertheless, the rest of the world hasn’t done Scandinavia any favours. Dramatically changed weather patterns have already affected the region, which is experiencing much milder winters and a corresponding decrease in snow cover. The rapid warming of the polar region – some scientists predict that ice-free summers at the North Pole may come as early as 2030 – will have huge and potentially devastating effects on the Scandinavian ecosystem, impacting everything from fisheries to indigenous rights. The lessening of snow and ice cover means that more heat is absorbed rather than reflected by the earth's surface, exacerbating the rapid warming; the consequent thawing of layers of permafrost will release yet more trapped carbon into the atmosphere.

Reindeer herding in the north has already been severely affected. Rain in place of snow freezes on the ground, denying the animals access to the mosses and lichens that sustain them.

As members of the Arctic Council (www.arctic-council.org), which strives to protect the northern environment, the Nordic countries are intimately engaged with trying to find solutions. However, questions remain unanswered regarding the management of resources under the ice cap in Russian and Canadian territories, which threatens to delay serious action until it is too late.

The European Union

If the European Union is a house party, then festivities were badly soured by the economic crisis and immigration issue. Finns grumbled that they were paying for everyone else to get drunk, while Danes and Swedes wanted to tighten up their formerly liberal policies on those some perceived as gate-crashers. Then Britain left in a huff and those remaining have begun to feel that maybe the party isn’t so bad after all – it’s cold outside and there's a big bear lurking. Meanwhile, friendly neighbour Norway isn’t a party person but now wonders if its standing invitation to share the food and beer might be re-evaluated after the commotion of Britain’s exit. And Iceland? Still dithering by the doorbell, wondering if the party is worthwhile.