Danes and Swedes: Old enemies united by the rush hour

The Oresund Fixed Link has thawed the froideur that once existed between the Danes and Swedes.


The western flight path into Copenhagen pays no attention to national boundaries. The Boeing 737 emerges from the clouds a few thousand feet above the Danish capital and descends through a wide arc over the Oresund Sound, crosses Malmo and a slice of southern Sweden, and rebounds over the water again for its final approach, back into Denmark.

The western flight path into Copenhagen pays no attention to national boundaries. The Boeing 737 emerges from the clouds a few thousand feet above the Danish capital and descends through a wide arc over the Oresund Sound, crosses Malmo and a slice of southern Sweden, and rebounds over the water again for its final approach, back into Denmark.

Down on the ground, movement between the two countries is similarly free-flowing. This time last summer, Sweden and Denmark were basking in the glory of having completed, on schedule, one of the jewels of the civil-engineering world. On 1 July 2000, Denmark and Sweden were connected (for the first time since the Ice Age) by the Oresund Fixed Link, a combination of a bridge, tunnels and a man-made island spanning the 10-mile stretch of water which divides the two land masses. Now, like the Channel Tunnel, the Oresund Fixed Link has slipped so comfortably into the natural order of things that regular users wonder how they ever managed without it.

At Copenhagen airport, I check my watch to see if the planners' ambitious targets are feasible. They are. It takes me less than ten minutes to clear Danish customs; three minutes to pass through the airport's new rail terminus and buy a ticket; and precisely 21 minutes to cross the bridge and finish my journey at Malmo Central. This is international travel made laughably easy. I seem to have crossed an awful lot of frontiers, and it's not even lunchtime yet.

The formalities appear minimal: a brief announcement on the train as you cross the border about customs regulations. I'm assured that spot checks of train passengers and vehicles are occasionally carried out; and if you look hard enough you will find small customs offices on either side. (As it happens, these may have to be upgraded because the bridge has become a favoured route for drug traffickers.) But overall, you get the feeling that now the bridge has been constructed, the border between Denmark and Sweden is quietly being dismantled.

This is not to say that these two proud monarchies, with their very distinct languages, laws, tax systems and competing currencies are edging towards becoming a Scandinavian superstate. Their history of conflict and rivalry spans most of the second millennium. Ancient animosities linger. You can't just build a bridge and expect neighbours who've been squabbling since the Middle Ages to start chatting amicably over the fence

But the psychological gulf is fast disappearing. The people of southern Sweden are increasingly turning their backs on distant Stockholm, looking across the Sound to the twinkling lights of Copenhagen – and visualising their future in Denmark.

In 1999, Bjorn Hoglund, a Swede living on the outskirts of Malmo, with ambitions in hotel management, heard that a new Hilton Hotel was to be built at Copenhagen Airport. Bjorn applied for a management position, although he feared that he would have to uproot his young family to a much smaller house in costlier Denmark. The bridge made this unnecessary. Bjorn got the job, kept his house, and now joins the international milk run across the border every morning and back again in the evening. Door to door – like my train journey – it takes him less than 30 minutes.

Every day, thousands of rail and road users cross the bridge for everything from fun to fillings. Swedes swarm into Copenhagen for its superior shopping, restaurants, culture and general buzz, not to mention its cheaper alcohol (although we're talking relatively here). Danes go in the opposite direction to have their cars repaired and their tyres replaced; for dentistry, spectacles, toys and weekend hotel breaks, all of which are cheaper in Sweden.

With all this to-ing and fro-ing some strange things have been happening, especially among young people, who are being whisked back and forth on school and college exchange courses.

There are signs that a new street patois is emerging, combining elements of both languages, and irreverently known as "Swanish". Some linguists expect it to be widely spoken within 10 to 15 years.

Another sign of the growing curiosity about their neighbour is the TV guide in southern Sweden's largest daily newspaper, which provides programme details of eight channels: three of them Danish. Equally, it's not unusual to overhear a discussion in a Copenhagen café about the latest twists and turns of Sweden's most popular soap opera.

Almost overnight, Malmo has become part of the must-see circuit. In the mid-Eighties, it was a run-down industrial backwater, with its core industry – shipbuilding – in terminal decline.

This year, it has enough self-confidence to stage a kind of Scandinavian Ideal Home Exhibition, though with attitude and imagination. "Bo01" is the largest housing exhibition ever mounted in Europe, with 800 apartments and show-homes powered by solar panels, wind turbines and heat from the ocean bed. One million visitors are expected, and after it closes in September, many of the futuristic dwellings will be sold to the public, transforming a district that until recently was a dismal wasteland.

Malmo's deeply entrenched Calvinistic attitudes will be swept away when the city's first casino – and only the second in Sweden – opens in November.

There's no easier place in the country to obtain an outdoor licence for a café, although it's not loosening its stays to the point of no return. Advertising is banned on all parasols, and there will be no, repeat no, plastic chairs. Last year, 1,165 Danes took to the place so much, they stayed on permanently.

When the idea of a bridge to Denmark was first mooted in a Swedish newspaper in the 1960s, the writer's life was threatened, and a Communist MP spoke in Parliament of grim Germans advancing across southern Sweden's virgin soil, destroying the crops and building Autobahns all over the place. No such fears are expressed today. Well, not in the Swedish Parliament, at least.

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