Background: Local cattle breeds need special attention, as they are valuable reservoirs of genetic diversity. Appropriate breeding decisions and adequate genomic management of numerically smaller populations are required for their conservation. At this point, the analysis of dense genome-wide marker arrays provides encompassing insights into the genomic constitution of livestock populations. We have analyzed the genetic characterization of ten cattle breeds originating from Germany, The Netherlands and Denmark belonging to the group of red dairy breeds in Northern Europe. The results are intended to provide initial evidence on whether joint genomic breeding strategies of these populations will be successful. Results: Traditional Danish Red and Groningen White-Headed were the most genetically differentiated breeds and their populations showed the highest levels of inbreeding. In contrast, close genetic relationships and shared ancestry were observed for the populations of German Red and White Dual-Purpose, Dutch Meuse-Rhine-Yssel, and Dutch Deep Red breeds, reflecting their common histories. A considerable amount of gene flow from Red Holstein to German Angler and to German Red and White Dual-Purpose was revealed, which is consistent with frequent crossbreeding to improve productivity of these local breeds. In Red Holstein, marked genomic signatures of selection were reported on chromosome 18, suggesting directed selection for important breeding goal traits. Furthermore, tests for signatures of selection between Red Holstein, Red and White Dual-Purpose, and Meuse-Rhine-Yssel uncovered signals for all investigated pairs of populations. The corresponding genomic regions, which were putatively under different selection pressures, harboured various genes which are associated with traits such as milk and beef production, mastitis and female fertility. Conclusions: This study provides comprehensive knowledge on the genetic constitution and genomic connectedness of divergent red cattle populations in Northern Europe. The results will help to design and optimize breeding strategies. A joint genomic evaluation including some of the breeds studied here seems feasible.