Bridge row may topple Swedish government

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SWEDEN'S minority government is teetering on the point of collapse over concerns that a road and rail bridge to Denmark will dramatically increase air pollution and damage the fragile environment of the Oresund Strait.

Work on the longest bridge in Europe has already commenced on the Danish side, but the four-party Swedish government is now dangerously split because of deep- seated opposition to the project in the Centre Party, which has strong rural roots and a green agenda.

The Swedish Prime Minister, Carl Bildt, who faces a general election in the autumn, has staked his credibility on the success of the plan and is due to announce his government's final decision on the project next week.

Environmentalists fear the construction of the 10-mile bridge and tunnel as well as an artificial island in the middle of the Oresund Strait will reduce the flow of seawater into the Baltic Sea, causing marine life to die out. There are also worries that the thousands of cars and trucks crossing the bridge every day will greatly increase air pollution in southern Sweden.

In Denmark however, the construction of the pounds 1bn bridge, (which is expected to make the Oresund into one of the busiest traffic junctions in the world), is eagerly awaited. The bridge is expected to trigger an economic boom for Copenhagen, making it the economic hub for much of southern Sweden. The road and rail link would cut travel time between Copenhagen and the busy Swedish city of Malmo to just over 30 minutes and ensure that Swedish trade to the heart of Europe goes through Denmark rather than the ports of northern Germany.

Opposition to the bridge is led by the Centre Party's head, Olof Johansson. He is demanding a 'zero solution' for the link, one that would guarantee that there was no adverse impact on the complex sea currents to the Baltic or in airbrone pollution. Tunneling under the strait is not an option because of the geology of the seabed and environmentalists say it is hard to see how the bridge can be built without damaging mussel beds and interfering with the annual migration of eels, herring and salmon.

If a decision is made next Thursday to go ahead with the bridge, Mr Bildt has to find a formula that satisfies his coalition partner or face the collapse of his government at a vital stage in the negotiations to join the European Union. The Centre Party is the least enthusiastic of Sweden's political parties about EU membership. With the tide of public opinion turning against EU membership, the bridge to continental Western Europe is fast becoming a focus of dissent.

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