speri.comment: the political economy blog

The new view from The Bridge

Re-bordering is emerging in Scandinavia in one of the most symbolically borderless regions in Europe

Ben Rosamond, Professor of Political Science, University of Copenhagen & Holly Snaith, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Copenhagen

rosamond-snaithThe completion of the Öresund Bridge in 2000 – immortalised in the well-known TV drama – changed both the physical and economic landscape of Denmark and Southern Sweden. The new train service brought the transit time between the two cities of Copenhagen and Malmö to less than 45 minutes.  Above all, and for the first time, the predictability of the service enabled the region’s inhabitants to plan, if they so chose, to live across borders, thereby creating an integrated region across the Öresund strait. This integration was equally predicated on Sweden’s and Denmark’s lack of passport controls, abolished between the Nordic countries in 1957 and cemented by their membership of the EU’s passport-free Schengen area, all of which promised political stability.

Sweden has latterly been in the news for its unilateral restrictions on travelling over the bridge, initially imposing passport controls at Hyllie, the first station on the Swedish side (in mid-November) and subsequently a border point at Copenhagen airport (from 4 January). The broader context is constituted by the Swedish government’s formerly highly open policies towards refugees, accepting more than 163,000 asylum applications in 2015 (which makes Sweden the largest per capita recipient of Syrian refugees in the EU).  Citing intolerable pressures on Sweden’s capacity to accommodate this level of inward migration, the government has imposed changes to rights of settlement for asylum seekers – and border controls.  Whilst this has some fairly significant local implications (and, for the sake of disclosure, both authors are regular and currently somewhat aggrieved cross-Öresund commuters), it also raises some broader questions about the balance of politics and economics in regional integration, and indeed about the sustainability of the EU’s internal market.

The Öresundskomiteen organisation estimates in 2014 that the Bridge added 6.5bn SEK (approx. £520m) per year to the region’s economy, with total cumulative benefits of 78bn SEK (£6.3bn) over its lifespan. Whilst the Bridge is significant, the current interchange volumes are actually relatively small: the combined conurbation contained 1.7m employees in 2010, but only 18,500 regular commuters – which has since reduced yet further to 16,000. The region contains Europe’s highest concentration of highly educated workers and, indeed, the dominant commuting pattern (over 90 per cent) involves employees in business and research travelling from Sweden to Denmark (taking advantage of higher Danish wages and cheaper Swedish housing). The current picture reveals, therefore, a well-established and important link, but arguably one that does not (yet?) live up to its full potential.

The pure cost of the new border checks has also raised issues of responsibility and compliance. The Swedish government has mandated that passport checks take place at Copenhagen Airport, conducted by the private Danish train operator, DSB.  DSB estimates the costs of conducting passport checks at up to one million DKK (about £100,000) a day. Furthermore, it has threatened to pass these costs along to passengers (in the form of a ‘ticket subsidy’) if the issue is not resolved within a month, on a ticket that is already 30% more expensive than travelling within Skåne or Sjælland. The Swedish state is threatening to fine DSB 50,000 SEK for every passenger it admits without adequate ID.  As a result, DSB has been photographing the documents of every traveller and uploading the resulting images to cloud storage, which, as of 6 January, has already experienced a hack.   In effect, the state has offloaded the sovereign function of monitoring citizenship to a private enterprise (in another country, no less) – and in turn has potentially failed to protect citizens’ data.

That this regime of border controls has been cobbled together so hastily is testimony to the fact the Öresund region (recently – and somewhat controversially – re-branded as ‘Greater Copenhagen’) was never meant to be a bordered space. The architecture of the Bridge itself is premised on the absence of borders, and the same is true of the railway stations at Hyllie and Copenhagen airport, which were both imagined and built as transport hubs within the Schengen and Nordic spaces of free movement.  More broadly, the Bridge and the wider Öresund project have been indicative of an erstwhile optimism about the integrative power of cross-border transactions and the permanency of institutional supports like Schengen.

As is now obvious, this optimism has been misplaced and the institutional props of free movement (perhaps the single most impressive achievement of European integration) are in serious peril. Sweden’s recent imposition of border controls, although technically illegal under the Schengen protocols, is far from unique in the context of the current refugee crisis. But the case is potentially instructive about both the limits of free-movement regimes and the conditions under which they might become compromised or dissolve altogether.

First, the Swedish government’s policy has been bitterly criticised by business organisations and the business press on both sides of the border. The supposition that commercial logic will prevail now seems like a quaint 1990s idea rooted in the imaginary of the ‘New Europe’ and the early ‘airport lounge’ literature on globalisation. So far, the minority Social Democrat-Green government in Stockholm has been able to withstand this critique by using a classic ‘state of exception’, or securitisation, frame to defend its policy stance, while simultaneously criticising the rest of the EU for failing to develop a common response to the refugee crisis.  While this has opened up something of a centre-periphery tension in Swedish politics, the main bourgeois parties support the border controls, with only the smaller Left and Centre parties in opposition.

Second, both the Danish and Swedish governments are minority administrations working within the context of strong electoral support for the far right. The Danish government formed in the aftermath of the 2015 election consists solely of ministers from the centre-right Venstre party, which claimed less than 20 per cent of the vote. It relies on parliamentary support from the anti-immigrant Danish Peoples’ Party, which is a strong and consistent advocate of closed borders and restrictive asylum policies.  Indeed, Denmark’s approach to asylum has recently been the subject of fierce criticism from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In Sweden, support for the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) now approaches 20 per cent, with recent opinion polls suggesting that SD is the largest political party in the south of the country. Relatively weak governments led by mainstream parties would seem, in current conditions, to be especially vulnerable to the discursive and policy appeal of the far right.

In sum, the imposition of border controls in one of Europe’s most symbolically borderless regions is a telling reminder of the broader crisis that is unfolding across the EU. Re-bordering is emerging as either a nativist response to increased refugee flows or a reluctant policy fix by governments under pressure from anti-immigrant sentiment in their domestic polities.  As things stand, it is hard to see how and when existing temporary border controls will be relaxed – no matter what the respective governments say. The situation in the EU’s Scandinavian countries is a microcosm of a broader European dilemma whereby the logic of market integration is no longer able to trump a more powerful logic of diversity, fuelled by the forces of populist anti-cosmopolitanism.

The inconvenience caused to cross-border commuters is one thing – and we feel it daily – but, more importantly, the situation is symptomatic of a very serious problem for the EU, which in turn translates into a grave crisis for those hundreds of thousands of displaced persons seeking refuge in a safe European home.

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