The Öresund Sound is the strait that separates the Danish island Zealand from the southern Swedish province of Scania. Its width is just 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) at the narrowest point between Helsingør, Denmark, and Helsingborg, Sweden. The strait has also lent its name to the Öresund Region of 3.7 million inhabitants on both the Danish and Swedish sides
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Danish and Swedish regions gave up
power to create bi-national metropolis
By Markus Berensson, City Mayors Correspondent
5 May 2011: After more than a century of the original grand plan to build a fixed link between Sweden and Denmark, the early 1990s finally saw real action. Inspired by the concept of a Europe of Regions and a post-industrial search for a new economic foundation, the two countries agreed to build a 7.85km-long bridge across the Öresund strait to connect the Danish capital Copenhagen with Sweden’s third city, Malmö, to form a united binational metropolis.
| The bridge | Regional sacrifices | Shared vision | Future integration |
Bridging two Scandinavian regions
That it happened then had much to do with regionalisation theories that emerged throughout the 1980s and 1990s, which maintained that the territorial state was losing its importance while regions were increasingly competing with one another. The key to national success was therefore to invest in strong regional economies that could carry the nation as a whole.
In southern Scandinavia this meant taking advantage of the close proximity between two powerful economic regions Denmark’s greater Copenhagen and western Scania in Sweden. They are so close to each other geographically that residents on either side can virtually watch every move of their neighbours across this narrow stretch of water, which could easily be bridged. Once built, the bridge would then enable residents and businesses on either side of Öresund to merge their respective ‘agglomeration economies’ (benefits that firms get from locating near one another) and form one common regional economy that would generate ever greater network effects, global competitiveness, and long-term growth.
Construction began in 1995 and four years later the bridge was completed ahead of time, cutting the hour-long ferry journey across the strait to about 10 minutes by car or train, making it possible for the first time for many people on both sides to interact rapidly with one another in their lives and work. The physical foundation for a functional binational economic region, with a common consumer, housing and labour market, was in place. But hard infrastructure alone could not guarantee regional success. A binational metro area is not only about bridges and roads that allow for rapid movement from place to place it also concerns political will, economic logic, and laws.
Regions sacrificed some of their independence
Fortunately the political will to create such a metropolitan region encompassing the entirety of Zealand in Denmark and Scania in Sweden was there from the start and a powerful Öresund region was supported by supranational, national and local authorities alike. EU organisations such as the Committee of the Regions and the Association of European Cross-Border Regions (AEBR) were scouting for promising binational regions to support politically and financially, and found Öresund sufficiently promising to qualify for the Interreg-program financed by the European Regional Development Fund, which seeks to stimulate cooperation between EU member states and reduce the significance of borders.
This supranational enthusiasm resonated with officials at national level in both countries, where there had long been a policy of Nordic cooperation that was institutionalised in the inter-parliamenarian Nordic Council when it was formed in 1952 and complemented by the inter-governmental Nordic Council of Ministers in 1971. A strong sense of Nordic unity therefore already existed before Denmark and Sweden became members of the European Union. This was in accord with EU visions of a Europe of Regions and provided a fertile ground for binational integration in Öresund, especially in the form of national financial support for key infrastructure investments.
Of equal importance with support from the top was a local willingness in Copenhagen and Malmö to give up some of their independence and become part of a regional network. It is rare for political bodies and bureaucratic organisations to support reforms aimed at limiting their own influence, as Christian Wichmann Matthiessen expressed it in his paper The Öresund Area: Pre- and post-bridge cross-border functional integration: “To change municipal or regional boundaries is often almost comparable to war though bloodless and is strongly resisted.”
But in the case of Öresund the local authorities on both sides of the strait proposed a number of cross-border initiatives that helped form an economic and political region, of which the most important was the Öresund Committee. It was founded in 1993 when local officials in Denmark and Sweden realised that the region needed a strong political organisation that enabled members representing the main cities within the region to come together, be visionary and decide on all issues of fundamental importance to keep the integration process moving.
Regions share a common vision
Another successful cross-border initiative has been the formulation of a common vision for Malmö and Copenhagen called Copenhagen and Malmö one city in order to make residents in each city feel more that they are members of the region. Even though the relationship between greater Copenhagen (1.9 million) and Malmö-Lund (650,000) was characterised by an imbalance to start with, where medium-sized Malmö was decidedly more enthusiastic to join forces with the urban leader Copenhagen than residents in the Danish capital were to pair up with Malmö, feeling that there was little in it for them to be able to easily cross the strait in order to spend time in small-town Sweden.
According to Erica Härefors’ study Samarbete i Öresund from Uppsala University, which is based on interviews with local public officials in Scania, this no longer seems to be the case, and efforts to market the idea of a common region appear to have succeeded. A common identity is not only important for the sake of making residents feel part of a region, it is also of significance when a region wants to reach out to external actors and explain the benefits for national or international businesses of moving their operations to the area as a whole. This was something that the regional partners were prescient enough to understand when they formed the Öresund Network and allowed it to market both sides of the strait with a unified voice.
These measures have since been assisted by many other programs, such as the creation of an integrated harbour when the Copenhagen and Malmö docks were turned into a semi-public company in 2000 as well as in the establishment of Öresund University, which since the project was formalised in 1997 has reached a membership of 20 local universities and led the way in the formation of the Öresund Science Region with its 150,000 students and 14,000 researchers.
But successful regionalisation is ultimately not to be found in the amount of cooperative organisations and government initiatives; it is about the flow of people. Have the bridge and the political will to form a binational metropolis led to an increased mobility in Öresund? It seems so. In 1999, when the only way to cross the strait was by ferry, vehicle traffic was 3.2 million. This steadily increased to 5.2 million in 2001 (the year after the bridge opened), 6.2 million in 2003, and 15.2 million in 2007. As of 2009 there were 35.6 million travellers by car, bus, train or ferry and an estimated 13,000 people commuted daily. There is a continually growing flow that is helped by lower house prices in Malmö and higher wages in Copenhagen. Thousands of Danes keep moving across the strait, though keeping their jobs in Denmark while many Swedes remain settled in Scania, but look for work in Copenhagen. Malmö and Copenhagen are therefore economic complements that feed a natural integration pattern that can be assumed to continue until economic incentives have reshuffled enough people across the region to equalise housing prices and wages.
Future integration requires national initiatives
As for the future, Öresund is continuing to invest more in hard regional infrastructure that will make it easier to travel within the area. A metro-train system, intra-urban motorways and railroads that connect the bridge to already existing networks in Copenhagen and Malmö are being built, one landmark being the opening of Citytunneln in Malmö last December. This created more train stations on the Swedish side and facilitates connections to the bridge.
However, there is a growing feeling within the region that Öresund is reaching a point where local authorities have done all they can and that further integration no longer depends on regional initiatives, but on national action. The biggest hurdles for further regionalisation are national legislation and differences in Danish and Swedish tax rules, social insurance, pension systems, and employment fees - as well as labour market laws that make it difficult for businesses and workers to lead a truly binational life within Öresund. It is still a lot less complicated to live and work on the same side of the strait and there is unfortunately not much that the region itself can do about it. What is left for local authorities then is to keep doing all they can to facilitate more integration that encourages deeper economic cooperation through ever better metropolitan infrastructure and regional public and private initiatives that generate a growing flow of cross-border commuters that will exert pressure on their respective national governments to harmonise the Danish and Swedish welfare systems so as to create a truly binational metropolis.