Nordics want to open borders but Sweden may be frozen out

STOCKHOLM — Sweden doesn’t want to be left out in the cold when its neighbors lift travel restrictions, even though its rising coronavirus death rate continues to cause concern in the region.

“I think it is absolutely vital that we try to open up the borders in a coordinated way,” Anna Hallberg, Sweden’s minister for trade and Nordic affairs, told POLITICO in an interview on Tuesday. “We are conducting intense discussions with our Nordic colleagues about this.”

When coronavirus first hit the Nordics in March, Norway, Denmark and Finland quickly imposed stringent lockdowns, closing their borders and shutting schools and most businesses.

Sweden’s approach was more light-touch: its borders remained open, its businesses kept trading and its children went to class as normal.

Since March, Sweden’s death rate from COVID-19 has spiked to as much as eight times that of its neighbors (taking into account population size).

“If it is not justifiable on health grounds to open the border with Sweden, then the Swedes can stay where they are and the Germans can come up” — Jakob Ellemann-Jensen, leader of Denmark’s largest opposition party

Now, as lawmakers in Denmark, Finland and Norway mull whether to extend or relax regional travel restrictions, there have been mutterings that perhaps Sweden shouldn’t be included.

Finland’s Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo raised the issue at a recent press conference, calling the Swedish situation “a concern.”

Ohisalo declined a request for interview for this piece, but her special adviser Jarno Lappalainen told POLITICO that Finland would make a decision about border restrictions with Sweden before June 15 and would take into account the “epidemiological situation” as well as economic and social factors and recommendations from the European Commission.

Meanwhile in Denmark, opposition lawmakers are pushing the government to consider continuing to shut out Swedes while letting in other nationalities. The Danish government has said it will announce a decision by June 1.

“If it is not justifiable on health grounds to open the border with Sweden, then the Swedes can stay where they are and the Germans can come up,” the leader of Denmark’s largest opposition party, Jakob Ellemann-Jensen of the Liberals, said during a recent parliamentary debate.

The EU’s latest guidance is for places with similar rates of coronavirus infection to open borders with each other in a first phase before a wider reopening of Europe’s free-travel Schengen zone is carried out.

The situation in the Nordics reflects the kind of problems European states are likely to face as they negotiate that first phase.

The three Baltic states have opened their borders with each other, but elsewhere things have been trickier: Spain and Greece are keen to allow travelers in to support their tourism industries, but some of the most popular countries for such tourists, including the U.K., are still seeing high rates of coronavirus infection.

Sweden is keen to see a Nordic-wide relaxation of rules for economic and social reasons, Hallberg said.

“There is a lot of frustration on both sides of the borders, in the business community, but also among private citizens,” she said. “They are so used to being able to visit friends and family and go to work and go shopping over the border.”

On a recent weekday at the ferry terminal in Stockholm, where boats normally depart for destinations around the Baltic Sea and beyond, the effect of the border closures was obvious.

“It is clear that what happens will depend on the situation with the virus in Sweden” — Jan Hanses, chief executive of Viking Line

Shipping operator Viking Line’s modern departure center was closed and signs stuck to the door said it would open for around an hour each morning and each evening to cater for the limited traffic. There wasn’t a single vehicle in its large parking lot.

Chief Executive Jan Hanses told POLITICO that passenger numbers were down to about 10 percent of normal and the company was relying mostly on its freight business to survive.

He said the company was waiting for the June 15 announcement from the Finnish government in the hope that there would be a relaxation of the rules on passenger movement to Sweden, which now only allow business travel and not tourism.

“It is clear that what happens will depend on the situation with the virus in Sweden,” Hanses said.

At a press conference on Thursday, Sweden’s Public Health Agency said that 4,266 people have now died of COVID-19 in the country, but the agency’s view is that falling death rates and falling rates of admission to intensive care units show the situation is improving.

In Finland, 313 people have died with the virus.

Swedish minister Hallberg said she was in regular contact with Nordic counterparts ahead of the summer and was “optimistic” that the Nordic states’ traditionally tight working relationship could help them agree on a coordinated and “simultaneous” relaxation of border controls.

“In the coming days and weeks, we will try and find a common solution,” she said.

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