A New Bridge Joins Two Nations...But Will They Embrace The Euro?

I'm high on the Oresundsbron, the gleaming new 16-kilometer bridge connecting Copenhagen to Malmo, Sweden. Some 60 meters below, the cold Baltic Sea is showing whitecaps. On this level of the $4 billion span, there are four lanes for traffic, and on the level below, two railroad lines. When it officially opens on July 1, travelers will be able to make a land crossing between Europe and the Scandinavian peninsula for the first time since the two were pushed apart by continental drift some 7,000 years ago.

But even before its opening, there are worries that the bridge, seven years in the building, may not prove as uplifting to the region's economy as its planners predicted. Businesspeople point to economic discrepancies between Denmark and Sweden, Malmo officials worry that too many young Swedes may decamp--and then there's the toll for using the bridge, which many complain will be way too high.

None of these concerns faze the bridge's defenders. "The unified Oresund region, with its population of 3.5 million, will compete with Berlin and Paris for investment and jobs," says Morten Dam, in charge of Oresund integration at the Danish Trade & Industry Ministry, who predicts 15,000 people a day will cross the sound, vs. only 2,500 via hydrofoil today. Dam says the bridge will unite Copenhagen's strong industrial base with southern Sweden's agricultural heartland. Foreign investors, he argues, will be drawn by the concentration of companies in food processing, Internet technology, and pharmaceuticals. Already, property prices in Malmo have risen 50% over three years.

The two countries are pumping big money into Oresundsbron. Besides $4 billion for the bridge, $8 billion is going for infrastructure, including new metro systems in Copenhagen and Malmo and a high-speed train link connecting the cities to each other and to Copenhagen's airport.

But all that money may not make the bridge an unqualified success. Businesses say that not enough is being done to equalize taxes and other costs on each side of the sound. For example, the high cost of telephone calls between the two cities--phoning Copenhagen from Malmo costs $1.85 a minute, against 2.2 cents to distant Stockholm--makes nonsense of the notion of an integrated region. Denmark's Dam concedes that he has identified 34 "barriers to business" but insists: "Integration is proceeding but won't happen overnight. It could take 15 years."

The Swedes have their own concerns. They worry that Copenhagen will prove too much of a magnet for young people eager to escape the high prices and provinciality of Malmo, a fear reinforced by polls showing that 75% of Swedes would consider taking a job in Denmark, against only 38% of Danes who would move to Sweden.

The biggest gripe, however, is about the cost of crossing the bridge: about $104 one way for the biggest trucks, although frequent travelers will pay as little as $8. Businesspeople grumble that the high price is meant to keep down traffic for environmental reasons and to meet an ambitious repayment schedule--some 27 years, short for a project of this size. "To build a bridge and then discourage people from using it is plain crazy," complains Hans Moller, head of Primant, an info-tech consultancy with offices in Copenhagen and Malmo. "The risk is that the bridge becomes a monument to stupidity rather than integration."

A New Bridge Joins Two Nations...But Will They Embrace the Euro? (int'l edition)

Upbeat talk about a united Oresund presupposes that Sweden and Denmark, both European Union members, opt to join the European Monetary Union and adopt the euro. Sweden is not expected to hold a vote on EMU until at least 2002, but Denmark's is scheduled for this September. Last year, polls showed a majority of Danes favoring the euro, and backing from Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen's government was seen as a major plus. However, this is the country that rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and is generally suspicious of EU integration. Recent polls show the government's popularity is waning, and with it support for the euro.

"There is an increasing chance that EMU will be rejected," warns Jacob Anderson, an analyst with the Mandag Morgen research group, noting that this would crimp the development of resund. "One region, two currencies" would be a novel departure for a Europe bent on binding itself together.

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