The trains from Copenhagen to Malmö leave every few minutes. Shortly after departing the Copenhagen airport they reach the Øresund Bridge, a low-lying metal structure that spans the strait connecting Denmark and Sweden. They pass a watery wind farm, its modern turbines rotating in the breeze, and then, about five minutes later, reach Malmö, the largest city in the Skåne region of Sweden. It’s a pretty, albeit anticlimactic, journey between two countries.
The Øresund Bridge opened to great fanfare in July 2000, replacing what had been a convenient, if slightly slow, ferry route. Copenhagen–Malmö was well on its way to becoming a truly binational—perhaps even post-national—metropolis. Proponents saw it as further evidence that borderless travel was a permanent fixture within the European Union, the urban manifestation of the dream of an increasingly unified, integrated continent.
In many ways, that dream was born in this very region. Open borders within Scandinavia began only a decade after the Second World War, preceding the Schengen Agreement (which abolished internal passport controls among signatory nations) by four decades. By 2015, almost all EU countries, as well as a handful of nonmember states, were part of the agreement. As a traveler or resident, once you were in, you were in. And until you left, you didn’t have to show your passport.
Yet in early January 2016, in the face of an unprecedented flow of economic migrants, political refugees, and asylum seekers from the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia, the Social Democratic government of Sweden unilaterally, and with almost no notice, imposed border controls over the Øresund Bridge. Swedish officials did so not because they had suddenly adopted an anti- immigrant stance, but because so many other EU nations had made it clear they were determined not to welcome refugees. This shift had made Sweden and Germany, the two countries with the most liberal approach on the issue, an irresistible magnet for hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants. Commuters now had to show a passport before boarding the train at the Copenhagen airport. On some days, they had to disembark at the first station on the Swedish side and show their passports again. What had been an easy half-hour commute now became an exercise in inconvenience. On some days, the process could add an extra hour to the journey.
This is the story of a dream’s implosion—and the turbulent politics behind that implosion—as Europe failed to come up with a common, continent-wide response to the refugee crisis of the past few years, and as individual countries were left to navigate these waters as best they could. The consequences may not be as dramatic as those following the landmark Brexit vote this past summer, but like Brexit they are hugely significant, calling into question the long-term future of the European Union.
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Forty thousand refugees crossed the Mediterranean in 2013. A year later, that number was 200,000. The following year, it reached a staggering 1 million—and this is just a fraction of the asylum seekers who entered the EU through all possible routes. Among them was 17-year-old Ahmed, who didn’t want his last name used because his parents still live in a neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria, that has repeatedly changed hands between Assad’s forces and ISIS. “Daesh,” as he calls the group, is “the worst”: “They kill anybody. They can kill you if you smoke, cut your hair the wrong way. They can kill you for one word.”