Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Denmark and Sweden put passport checks on hold… for now.
A group of Swedish and Danish commuters can breathe a collective sigh of relief this week. After 15 long months, Sweden decided Tuesday it will stop checking identification for people crossing the Øresund Bridge, which links Copenhagen with the Swedish city of Malmö. Passengers can once again travel to Sweden from the Danish capital without going through the rigmarole of disembarking for laborious ID checks, a process that could easily double the travel time between the two cities from 30 minutes to an hour.
That still might not seem like the worst journey, but the Øresund Strait is no ordinary border. Just 2.5 miles wide at its narrowest stretch, this corridor that separates Sweden from the European mainland has also become a symbol of the possibilities of a genuinely borderless future.
Copenhagen and Malmö, Sweden’s third city, have always had close relations, but the opening of the Øresund Bridge in 2000 created a new international metropolitan area. This double-headed conurbation made it easy for people to commute daily across the strait from one country to another. There were even discussions about creating the world’s first international subway system. The Danes suggested marketing the area as “Greater Copenhagen,” which would be easier for foreigners to say than the mysterious “Ø” in Øresund, an idea that, as you might expect, got a mixed reception on the Swedish side.
When border checks were reintroduced in 2015, they had the psychological effect of splicing the metro area back into two parts. It was also a headache for people who used the bridge regularly. When the bridge opened, traveling from one city to the other was a seamless 30-minute affair, with the added advantage of stunning views of the sea. With the checks in place, traveling from Sweden to Denmark remained as normal, but in the other direction, Copenhageners had to take a train to the airport (the last stop before Sweden) before getting off. They then had to file through an ID check before boarding another train, which paused (sometimes lengthily) for another ID check at the first stop in Sweden before heading on to Malmö’s Central Station.
The delay was caused by something far beyond the control of either city’s government, however. The Øresund had become a flashpoint in Europe’s refugee crisis. Since the crisis flared up in 2015, Sweden had instigated some of Europe’s most generous asylum policies. Denmark, meanwhile, had taken a hard line, severely limiting the number of asylum petitions granted and even threatening to strip refugees of their remaining possessions in order to pay for their upkeep.
The stark contrast in the two countries’ policies saw 163,000 asylum seekers arrive in Sweden in 2015, a large number of them crossed the bridge. Unable to control the flow across an open border, Sweden felt compelled to bring in border guards. The plan worked, and in 2016, the number of new asylum seekers arriving in Sweden dropped to 29,000. The policy put a strain on locals, in particular on the 20,000 commuters who cross the bridge each day. Last year, 565 of them sued the Swedish government, claiming that the delays had forced them to buy cars or even change jobs. They will surely welcome this week’s reversal, which comes as the EU recommends dropping temporarily reintroduced border controls across the union.
Still, it will take a lot to restore confidence in the idea that Copenhagen and Malmö are a single, steadily integrating metropolitan area. Urbanists may espouse a future where cities develop greater political power and autonomy, but the Øresund’s recent experience shows just how much they are still subject to decision-making at the national level. Malmö may be clearly visible from the tower of the Danish parliament in Copenhagen, but right now, the city is still feeling farther away than it did two years ago.