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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 September 2006, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
Bridge shapes new Nordic hub
By Laurence Peter
BBC News, Malmo, Sweden

Oresund bridge (pic: Oresundsbron)
The bridge put the Oresund ferry service out of business
Thirty-five minutes is all it takes now to whiz by train from Malmo in southern Sweden to the Danish capital Copenhagen.

Whatever happens after the Swedish general election on 17 September, the development opportunities opened up by the giant Oresund bridge are too good for any government to neglect.

On 1 July 2000 Danish Queen Margrethe II and her Swedish counterpart King Carl XVI Gustaf opened the bridge - the longest combined road and rail link in Europe.

Since then, the integration project has received funding from the European Union and praise from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Bureaucracy

But integration - still in its early phase - has to overcome some significant differences between Denmark and Sweden.

A study by Oxford Research last year noted the Oresund region's high potential, with its advanced infrastructure and concentration of biotechnology and IT firms.

But it also highlighted the need to harmonise the countries' regulations, reduce other bureaucratic hurdles and broaden the integration process.

Maria Christensen on Copenhagen metro train
Maria Christensen is a regular Oresund commuter

The joint Oresund Committee notes that the rate of population growth is higher on the Swedish side and Denmark's birth rate looks set to remain lower than Sweden's.

At the same time, both countries want to see the Oresund region develop as the gateway to the Baltic and Scandinavia.

With a population of 3.6 million, the region is bigger than Stockholm or Helsinki. By 2024, the region is expected to have an extra 265,000 inhabitants, the authorities in Sweden's Scania region say.

Scania - which includes Malmo - was until 1658 a Danish possession.

"Many Scania people still feel more Danish than Swedish," says Maria Christensen, project manager at Oresund University.

Danish settlers

Thousands of Danes have found it advantageous to settle in the Malmo area, while keeping their jobs in Copenhagen, with its booming labour market. Housing and cars are cheaper in Sweden, as the affluent Danish capital sucks in more high earners, pushing up prices.

ORESUND LINK
Bridge length: 7.8km (4.8 miles)
Four-lane road bridge above railway
Link includes 4km artificial island and 4km tunnel on Danish side

There is a huge imbalance in commuter traffic over the bridge. In 2005 about 9,200 people commuted across the Oresund strait daily, the vast majority of them from Malmo to Copenhagen.

Unemployment is higher in Sweden, so many Swedes have also found work in Copenhagen - while remaining resident in Sweden. So they pay income tax in Denmark but still enjoy all the benefits of Sweden's generous welfare state.

To help compensate, Denmark repays Sweden about 400m Danish kroner (36.4m) annually in taxes. But this goes directly to the Swedish government, rather than to Scania - and that disappoints people in Malmo.

Transport costs

The Oresund University was set up to take advantage of the concentration of higher education institutes and hi-tech companies in the region. It unites 14 universities, with a total of 150,000 students.

Ms Christensen told BBC News that nearly 4,000 students now cross the bridge regularly - most of them studying on the Danish side. "But the cost of commuting for students is a problem," she said, adding that transport can account for as much as half of a student's monthly income.

The OECD speaks of "extensive co-operation in the research and education fields" in the Oresund region.

But the OECD also says "a harmonised labour market will be difficult to achieve in the near future".

Malmo's mayor Ilmar Reepalu says Scania has seen an influx of international firms wanting a convenient hub for their Nordic operations. That is enough new business to prevent a brain drain to Denmark, he says.

"We're trying to be a model for Europe, at a time when EU countries are becoming more nationalistic," he told BBC News.

Lars Whitt of the information agency Oresund Direct also insists that "the two countries are not rivals - it's a win-win situation".

"Sweden has higher unemployment, so it's better that people can find jobs in Denmark and get off Swedish benefits," he said.

The bridge and other infrastructure developments have cost more than 8.5bn euros (5.8bn) - a sum that is not likely to be recouped for decades.

But the new investments in the region suggest it is well placed to face the challenges of globalisation.


Map showing bridge




SEE ALSO
Scandinavia bridges age-old gap
01 Jul 00 |  Europe

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