Bridge To Bilateralism?

Dec. 21, 2004
Despite high expectations and potential, The Oresund Bridge linking Denmark and Sweden has been a disappointment to date.

As well-dressed crowds push through Casino Copenhagen, two women who have taken refuge in the bar laugh when a stranger mentions the new bridge. "That thing?" says one of them. "What a flop!" An expensive flop, at that -- if she's right. The bridge in question, the Oresund fixed link, is part of a $2 billion project meant to connect Denmark and Sweden, creating an important metropolis out of two cities -- Copenhagen in the Danish province of Zealand and Sweden's Malm in the Scania region -- that have had little to do with each other for the last 350 or so years. The bridge and accompanying tunnel, as well as the artificial island where the two meet, opened on July 1, 2000, to great fanfare, complete with a royal kiss between the Danish queen and the Swedish king. Reporters and television crews came from around the world to witness their meeting and to admire the graceful structure linking the two countries. While journalists might have been very much in evidence, not so the throngs of motorists who had been expected to flock to the bridge just to savor the novelty of the thing. In fact, acknowledges Sven Landelius, CEO of the government-backed consortium that built the link, the lack of novelty traffic has been one of the great disappointments of its first year. All the same, Landelius is far from agreeing with the sentiments expressed by the woman in the casino. "I find it extremely hard to see the first . . . months of operation as anything else than a success or the beginning of a success," he insists. But Landelius, a Swede, has a lot of convincing to do on both sides of the Oresund strait -- and not just among the casino-going public. Several leading trucking companies in the region have chosen to protest high bridge tolls by using the cheaper ferry services from one shore to the other. Similarly, motorists seem to have found bridge tariffs -- pegged now for cars at US$26 for a round trip (and three times that for trucks) after two rounds of reductions -- too high for frequent trips across what is now an invisible border. In fact, on a sunny Saturday in April, just the sort of day for a leisurely drive, Sweden-bound traffic was sparse, and the number of cars headed for Denmark was only slightly higher. The following Monday saw an increase in use, but not a dramatic one. A midday visit to the live Web cam on a Tuesday in July revealed much the same picture. But statistics from various sources show that the flow from one nation to another may be growing from what has been a mere trickle. Copenhagen's tourism authority says income from tourists jumped by 9% last year, thanks in part to the bridge. And a quarter of the Swedes interviewed in a survey said they had gone on Danish shopping trips -- lured by the lower prices of alcohol and cars, among other things. By contrast, only 2.4% of Danes said they had made the trip over to Sweden during the winter. Optimists would call that a beginning. After all, they would argue, there is much history to be overcome, including centuries of warfare between Sweden and Denmark that was pretty much settled in 1658 when Sweden wrested away control of the Scania region, of which Malm is the principal city. Until then, Scania had been part of Denmark. Business Interaction Lags Indeed, the Scanian people are said to have more in common with the fun-loving, uninhibited Danes than the more reserved Swedes who live up north in Stockholm. But that has not meant much in the way of interaction between businesses in Denmark and southern Sweden. In 1992, for example, there were 16 business contacts between Malm and Stockholm for every one between Malm and Copenhagen, notes Stephan Mchler, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Southern Sweden. The strait, though narrow, presented a formidable barrier at times when heavy winds kept ferries from crossing, Mchler says. He recalls coming back from a business trip once, landing at Copenhagen airport, and spending the night in a hotel because he couldn't get across the water. "I would actually be sitting in a hotel room looking at my office," he says, "but I just couldn't reach it." Since the bridge's opening, however, flying in and out of Copenhagen's excellent airport offers few headaches. One night, Mchler recalls, he flew into Copenhagen at 7:15, and was in his home 40 kilometers away in Sweden by 7:55. Mchler would be among the optimists who believe that the bridge will offer great long-term benefits to both sides, and that it's no pipe dream to hope for the creation of one metropolis out of two cities on either side of a national border. When combined, the Copenhagen-Malm gross regional product is 50% higher than the GDP of Stockholm and environs, and in the top eight throughout Europe. Further bridges of the symbolic sort need to be built before the Danish province of Zealand and Sweden's Scania can lay claim to membership in a super-region. Differences in tax rates and social benefits make living in one country and working in the other unappealing to many, and the two national governments have been slow in trying to accomplish any sort of harmonization between the two systems. In fact, the executive director of the Danish Chamber of Commerce lashed out recently at politicians in Sweden and his own country for being slow in the task of region building. "They believe that because the Oresund Bridge has been completed, everything else will fall into place," Lars Krobaek said in May. "The barriers to integration, however, remain substantial and cannot be overcome through a natural development process. If integration is not to take 100 years, a new bilateral partnership between Denmark and Sweden must be established." There are signs that steps toward narrowing the divide are under way. Institutions on either side of the sound have created the Oresund University, an educational consortium. Also, four organizations have teamed up to create the Oresund Science Region, which aims to make it easier for business and science to work together. And in May, the ports of Copenhagen and Malm merged, the first such marriage between two ports in different countries. Landelius points out that overall traffic across the sound has increased by more than 60% since the bridge opened a year ago, and half of that traffic is using the Oresund fixed link. The trains that cross the bridge often are crowded, and the ferries, though they have been forced to lower rates, are getting more business than ever before. Still, there is that pessimistic view, voiced in Casino Copenhagen and around the region, something Landelius acknowledges. "I think we have a problem with that perception, and you can find it on both sides of the Oresund. "I think we made a mistake in the months before the [bridge's] inauguration. We were too optimistic. We thought that it would happen overnight. . . . And when it didn't happen that way. . . you could see the growing disappointment. And that's something we have to work on. Not only the Oresund Bridge consortium, but different players in the region. . . . "We have a major job ahead of us," adds Landelius. "I think . . . we are in the hangover period right now. We are trying to recover from it. And we will."

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