Sunset on the Oresund Bridge connecting Copenhagen and Malmö. Radu Sigheti/Reuters

A cautionary tale of the limitations of international metro areas.

It’s not exactly typical for commuters to sue their own state for slowing down their journey to work. That’s what currently happening in Sweden, however, where workers employed in Denmark say that ID checks have so slowed crossings between the two countries that their daily routines are becoming impossible. It’s a striking turn of events in a region that, until this year, was seen as a model for an almost borderless future.

After the millennium, the cities of Copenhagen and Malmö seemed set to become models for the future of Europe. Separated by a narrow stretch of sea but joined since 2000 by the Oresund Bridge, Denmark’s largest and Sweden’s third largest cities were destined to be parts of a prosperous, green, forward-looking metropolis that just happened to straddle an international border. This wasn’t just airy aspiration. With just under 100,000 people crossing daily last year by bridge and ferry, Denmark planned to rebrand the area as Greater Copenhagen (not all Swedes were thrilled with the name, as you can imagine) and there was talk of establishing an Oresund Parliament. There were even proposals to create what would be the world’s first international metro system (as things stand, trains between the two downtowns take only 30 minutes), helping to fashion what could become Europe’s answer to the Bay Area.

Now the cities’ integration is looking a little rocky. As the European refugee crisis created a spike in migrants trying to reach Sweden, ID checks were reintroduced on the bridge between the two cities this winter, slowing travel times considerably. One reason the strain was so great was the two country’s radically different approaches to the crisis: while Sweden’s attitude towards migrants was relatively open, Denmark’s was so strict that few were tempted to try claiming asylum there.

This month, 565 commuters launched a lawsuit for damages against the Swedish authorities. Demanding 25 million Swedish Kronor (around $2.8 million) in compensation from Sweden’s Chancellor of Justice, they say that the border checks have so slowed down and complicated their journeys that some have been forced to take drastic measures, such as buying cars or even switching to lower-paid jobs that don’t involve crossing the border.  

All this makes claims for a seamless Greater Copenhagen seem pretty threadbare right now, even if they may revive at some later date. Still, you can’t really blame the cities themselves for this. Borders are back in fashion in Europe and the two sides of the Oresund are simply trying to manage the dissonance between their national governments’ policies. And it’s not as if the border has now been sealed off—slightly higher wages in Denmark and slightly lower housing and living costs in Sweden ensure a continuing amount of to-and-fro-ing. But as ID checks make the main arteries between the two cities increasingly sclerotic, further integration plans, such as a shared metro system, seem ever more improbable.

It’s wrong to suggest that these recent problems mean that either city is really in grave crisis. Both are in fact still relatively prosperous and well-run. Their pitfalls are really those of any international metro area. Talk of better integration comes laced with utopian optimism, and then reality kicks in.

The twin cities of the Oresund are not exceptional in this. Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, for example, may form the largest international metro area in the West, coming second globally to Kinshasa/Brazzaville. Better connections between the two cities have still been stymied for years by private vested interests holding back the construction of a new public bridge. And while the media talks up prospects of better integration between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, cross-border workers there experience delays that make Oresund commuters’ hold-ups seem enviable. Reducing barriers so that near neighbors can mingle more freely seems a laudable ambition, but cities themselves are not exactly in a position to fully make such dreams a reality on their own. As Copenhagen and Malmö’s current impasse shows, it’s still national governments, not cities, that make the rules of this world.

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