Horrible timing. That would be an accurate description of the launching of Greater Copenhagen, the rebranded cross-border region between Denmark and Sweden. Unveiled on 1 January this year, its agenda of transnational openness and integration across the bay stood in clear contradiction to the new border controls enforced by Swedish legislation and implemented on the Danish side of the bridge only three days later.
It used to be called Oresund. The region made up by the southern tip of Sweden and the capital area of eastern Denmark. Linked by the famous bridge, which opened in 2000, this cross-border region has for a long time been known as the shining example of successful EU-integration.
Recently, cracks in this façade have appeared.
The full width of the refugee crisis that Europe faced in 2015 took almost everyone by surprise. Not least Swedish Prime minister Stefan Löfven, who in September last year proclaimed that his Europe “does not build walls” but in late November desolately declared that Sweden “could no longer handle the amount of asylum seekers they were receiving”, turning Swedish refugee- and asylum politics completely around.
Swedish legislation, Danish implementation
A law, which allows Sweden to enforce id-controls for journeys into the country from abroad on bus, train or ferry in case of “serious threat to the public order or national security”, was passed in the Swedish parliament on 17 December.
“The controls needed to be implement very fast, from the 4 January. We only had about two weeks to get the new system in place,” says Tony Bispeskov, Head of Information at Danish State Railways (DSB) to Euroscope.
“This operation requires 150 employees and we at DSB are equipped to run trains not id-controls, so we hired a private security firm to carry them out.”
According to Bispeskov, the new system has been running smoothly thus far, even during rush hour. The average travel time has not been extended by more than 10 minutes on the Danish side, a reasonable trend he hopes will last.
“If the delays become any longer, our passengers will undoubtedly seek other means of transportation.”
The Swedish law permits id-controls at the Swedish border for up to six months. Swedish Minister of Infrastructure, Anna Johansson said, on Monday the 11 January, that the id-controls would remain in place “until we see a sharp and durable decline in people trying to reach Sweden,” to Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter.
Assessing the potential losses
More than 15 000 people commute over the bridge, trough the tunnel or by ferry between Sweden and Denmark every day. As a regional development report made by the OECD in 2013 establishes, cross-border residency, labour, trade, business and education are all vital aspects of daily life for Swedes and Danes around Oresund. The bridge across the bay is the main provider of internal regional accessibility and Kastrup, the international airport, connects the region with the world beyond.
Both business actors and politicians across the spectrum have expressed concern for the consequences of the restricted movement between Denmark and Sweden, on the finances and labour market of the region. Big losses on both sides of the bay have been foreseen, if the id-controls come to last long.
A calculation made by prominent Danish think tank Kraka suggests that these predictions might be exaggerated, however. According to their analysts, the id-controls will likely result in financial loss, due to the extended travel time. The annual sum though, would most likely not precede 50 million DKK (680 000 euros) an, according to Kraka, rather limited amount given the context.
Kraka’s analysis further indicates that the impact of these controls on the transnational labour market, in terms of practical losses, would be quite insignificant as well, with a complete reduction of the collective working force of Denmark and Sweden combined by about 30 people in total.
United or divided?
Another, less evident, aspect of the transnational collaboration is at stake due to the restriction of cross-border movement however. The perception of the region as a single entity.
Right-wing politicians in Skane, the Swedish part of Greater Copenhagen, are worried.
“Borderless Europe cannot be a dream reserved for times of world peace. The European integration with transnational regions, like ours around Oresund, is worth protecting,” they wrote in an opinion piece published by Dagens Nyheter on 4 January 2016.
“According to the OECD, among others, Oresund has a lot of potential as a region, which have not been fully exploited yet,” says social democrat Lars Gaardhøj, Regional Councillor for the capitol region of Denmark.
“We have really high hopes for Greater Copenhagen and we want to see it as a common region, with a collective labour market and integrated economy across the water. When you make it more difficult to cross the bay, it will have a negative affect on both the economic and political integration of the cross-border region that we have been working hard to promote.“
From a EU-perspective, Greater Copenhagen is a prime example of what sustainable regional development should look like.
With its 3.8 million inhabitants, big cities such as Copenhagen and Malmö, 11 universities, and a high level of innovation, the transnational region around Oresund makes up for a quarter of the Swedish and Danish GDP combined.
The vision is to, by 2020, “stand out as the most attractive and climate-smart region in Europe”, by maximising the benefits of integration and cross-border dynamics.
The new Greater Copenhagen-concept is thus in line with the EU-ideal of free movement within the Union, but the whole idea of transnational, sustainable regions is built on a Europe that remains open and unrestricted, something that in the current situation is not a given.
The rebranding of the region could not have come at a worse time. Never since the opening of the bridge, 15 years ago, have the concept of transnational integration between Denmark and Sweden been as challenged, and the future so unclear.
While the border controls might be manageable on a practical level, they pose a threat on a psychological level, as they question the now almost unquestionable transnational unity across Oresund.
On a broader scale, the case of Oresund or Greater Copenhagen may have implications on the dynamics of European integration in several ways.
First off, a domino effect have already been set in motion with id-controls at the Danish border to Germany, set up shortly after the Swedish ones had been implemented.
Secondly, the current situation in Oresund could lead policymakers and the public to question the future of cross-border integration – if not even Sweden and Denmark, with the most successful transnational integration in the EU, can manage to withstand the pressure of dealing with current issues in an every-man-for-himself-manner, who will?
It is still too early to do more than ponder the full effects and consequences of Sweden’s new legislation and border policy. It is clear however, that more than just money is at stake and that not only the prosperity of the region in question is challenged, but also the idea of regionalism in Europe.