The closing of Öresund – On borders, trains and state power

With the so-called “refugee crisis” and the terrorist attacks in Paris in Europe, several European countries have either reinstated border controls to their neighbors or are planning to do so.

One very particular case is the Danish-Swedish border-bridge which separates the Swedish city of Malmö (pop.: 300,000  +900,000 in surrounding area) from the Danish capital Copenhagen (pop.: 1.2 million + 1.3 million in surrounding area). Sweden has been a lot more open to hosting refugees than Denmark, but now Swedish authorities claim that they can take no more.

They will therefore starting fining transport companies that brings a person to Sweden without an ID on them. This means that the train companies operating across the border will have to create border checks on the Danish side. The move has been commented on as an outgrowth of traditional Danish-Swedish rivalry in the Economist and a Facebook campaign by commuters has attacked the decision for having been made from far away Stockholm, where they just don’t understand the reality of people living in the border region.

This seems to be the common way of looking at it: a central government taking measures it does not understand the consequences of to stop the country being overrun by refugees.

However, is that all there is to it?

Looking at it from a wider perspective, there may also be some other factors that are important here.

Police at a temporary ID check station on the Swedish side of the border. Starting Jan 4 2016, checks are to take place on the Danish side before trains enter Sweden. Photo: News Øresund - Johan Wessman © News Øresund(CC BY 3.0) Detta verk av News Øresund är licensierat under en Creative Commons Erkännande 3.0 Unported-licens (CC BY 3.0). Bilden får fritt publiceras under förutsättning att källa anges. The picture can be used freely under the prerequisite that the source is given. News Øresund, Malmö, Sweden. www.newsoresund.org. News Øresund är en oberoende regional nyhetsbyrå som är en del av det oberoende dansk-svenska kunskapscentrat Øresundsinstituttet. www.newsoresund.org www.oresundsinstituttet.org
Police at a temporary ID check station on the Swedish side of the border. Starting Jan 4, 2016, checks are to take place on the Danish side before trains enter Sweden.
Photo: News Øresund – Johan Wessman
© News Øresund (CC BY 3.0)
www.newsoresund.org.
News Øresund är en oberoende regional nyhetsbyrå som är en del av det oberoende dansk-svenska kunskapscentrat Øresundsinstituttet.
www.newsoresund.org
www.oresundsinstituttet.org

 

Trains connect

The ID controls will effectively separate Malmö from Copenhagen. The effects of having a bridge (which was inaugurated only 15 years ago, before that they used ferries) will be gone if one has to spend and extra 30-60 minutes when crossing. For businesses that have been built up across the border, this will have a crippling effect. If the border controls continue for an extended period, individuals who commute across will either have to move to live near their job or will have to find another job on their side of the bridge.

All this should be clear also to government officials in Stockholm. The question is: Why do they not care enough to stop the interruption from happening?

Loss of connection

Hypothesis 1: If travel time between place A and B is lower than between B and C, the people of B will tend to have more exchange with the people of A than the people of C. If A and C are equal producers or buyers of goods and services, businesses in B will prefer dealing with A over C.

Trains in 2015: With traffic across the Malmö-Copenhagen bridge interrupted, Sweden will be cut off from mainland Europe.
Trains in 2015: With traffic across the Malmö-Copenhagen bridge interrupted, Sweden will be cut off from mainland Europe. Source: http://www.scandinavianrail.com/images/maps/Europe_2.png

This could explain some things. Southern Sweden was suddenly closer to Copenhagen than the Swedish capital Stockholm. While people on the Swedish side continued to see themselves as Swedes and there has been much harsh criticism of recent right-wing extremism developing in Denmark, over time there was the chance that Malmö-Copenhagen would be closer connected than Stockholm-Malmö. The Danish attempt to market the region internationally as “Greater Copenhagen” would be in line with this.

Coincidentally, the setup of border controls between Malmö and Copenhagen comes at the same time as the final route of a new rapid train from Malmö to Stockholm is being revealed. In 2035, the train will run at 320 km/h, cutting the connection time down to 2.5 hours from today’s 4.5 hours. As long as the 1.2 million people on the Swedish side have not been completely integrated with the Danish side by then, this will make them move much “closer” to the Swedish capital, and thereby make them more Swedish.

Size gives power

Hypothesis 2: If place A and B are connected, and place A is significantly larger or economically stronger than place B, place B will be absorbed by place A rather than the other way round.

It is pretty clear that it the 1.2 million living on the Swedish side that are integrating with the economic/societal structures of the 2.5 million on the Danish side rather than the other way round.

A historical example

Historically, Denmark has had some bitter experiences with this: In the early 19th century, the country was a multi-lingual empire which included Norway, Greenland/Faroe Islands/Iceland and some German-speaking parts north of Hamburg (Schleswig-Holstein). It lost Norway to Sweden in 1814. In the German-speaking part, many traders had profited from being part of the Danish empire as they could sail under Danish flags and thereby make use of some of the deals the Danish government had made with pirates and others.

Train lines in Northern Germany and Denmark in 1861. The green area was under Danish reign, but much better connected to German urban centers than to the Danish capital Copenhagen (Kopenhagen on map). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bahnkarte_Deutschland_1861.jpg
Train lines in Northern Germany and Denmark in 1861. The green area was under Danish reign, but much better connected to German urban centers than to the Danish capital Copenhagen (Kopenhagen on map). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bahnkarte_Deutschland_1861.jpg

Then along came the railway. The first lines in the southern parts of the empire connected the area closer to Altona (Hamburg) in 1844 and Büchen/Berlin in 1851. These were already German-speaking cities, and now that they were also closer connected to other German cities than other parts of Denmark, it suddenly was not all that interesting to be part of the Danish empire and exporting to the German Customs Union may have been a lot more attractive for many producers in that area.  Maybe this was not the principal reason for what was to come. However, in 1864  Denmark lost the southern parts through war, and in 1866 those joined the German Customs Union.

Still valid?

More examples do exist:

  • The train Berlin-Rostock-Copenhagen: After the fall of the Berlin wall, a direct line between Copenhagen and Berlin was put in place. It included a 100-minute ferry, but no other changes. For some reason, the Danish train lines first decided to cut the number of trains on the Danish side of the border down to one per day until 2009. To take that train, one had to leave Berlin at 4:43 am.  It was entirely closed down in 2010 due to lack of passengers.
  • The train Hamburg-Copenhagen: There is a direct line which goes via the ferry Rødby-Puttgarden. This is the excuse given for why the train has to be short: Otherwise, it won’t fit on the ferry. Therefore, it is often so full that one has to stand for a large part of the way. One is not allowed to stay on board the train during the crossing, so there is no good reason they could not use one large train to transport passengers to the ferry and another large train to pick them up on the other end.
  • The Swedish government-owned railway company tried twice to set up express trains between Oslo (the capital of Norway) and Stockholm since the year 2000. Both times the Norwegian authorities found a last minute excuse why they needed to do some maintenance that would destroy the Swedish plans. It was only after the story of an annoyed Swedish train company made headline news in Norway, that Norwegian officials stepped in and postponed the maintenance plans.

One may say that in our enlightened day and age, the role of trains is entirely different and also nation states are integrated and have stopped to plan wars against each other and that capitalism in each of these countries pushes for more rather trade and communications with neighboring countries.

But isn’t capitalism = more trade/exchange?

It is true that the establishment of the Swedish-Danish bridge was approved by many of the same political parties that now voted to effectively close it. And Denmark is currently planning on building a bridge to Germany.

Instead of being only for or only against faster connections, all these people in positions of power seem to have contradictory positions: They want to be as well connected with everyone else in so far as it means that they can extend their power, yet they are afraid of connections when it means that they may become a suburb of their neighbor’s area. Bureaucratic and economic elites of Oslo hate the idea of being part of a “Greater Stockholm” in which they are likely not to be the central component. Copenhagen elites don’t want to become part of a “Greater Berlin” or “Greater Hamburg.”

Unfortunately, it is everyday commuters and ordinary people moving around are going to be the losers of these power struggles.

Edit: Conspiracies?

Some readers have commented that this all sounds like a conspiracy theory. It doesn’t have to be. The decisions to open and close various train lines were likely not coordinated acts. The result is still the same:

Norwegian bureaucrats hear that the Swedish rail company wants to setup trains from Oslo to Stockholm that are faster and more modern than anything they have.  So they feel intimidated and find excuses to close it. Stockholm-based politicians see how the southern tip of the country is turning into a part of “Greater Copenhagen” so they fear they will lose their province. Etc.

All very natural human behavior.

Photo credits (main photo): “Öresundsbron” Henry von Platten

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *