A tale of two cities
Closed border between Norway and Sweden takes its economic toll
BIBIANA PIENE & JONAS DAGSON
On Oct. 9, the border between Norway and Sweden was closed for the first time since 1954, and only essential travel between the two countries is permitted, with strict quarantine requirements in place. The measures are straining relations between the two Nordic neighbors—and having their effect on the economy on both sides of the border.
“The border closure between Norway and Sweden will last at least until the end of March next year,” Strömstad Mayor Kent Hansson believes. He sees the future with gloom.
“No one believes that the border will open before Easter. With each passing day, the situation in Strömstad only gets worse and worse,” he told the news agency NTB.
Hansson and the rest of the municipal council in the Swedish border town are now bracing for an unemployment rate that will climb to around 20% in the New Year.
The border between Norway and Sweden has gone from being a line across the asphalt to an invisible wall because of the entry quarantine. Hansson’s repeated requests to Norway to ease up on the quarantine rules have not been heard. Now he thinks nothing will happen before the Easter week next year, which starts on Mar. 29.
“It’s depressing. Many families will lose all their income. It will create major social problems, said Hansson.
“It’s a heartache, especially now at Christmastime.”
Norwegian authorities told NTB that they have no idea when free movement across the border will be allowed again.
“The quarantine rules are updated continuously and can change quickly. It is too early to say at this time how the situation will be around Easter,” said State Secretary Maria Jahrmann Bjerke.
“There’s a limit”
Strömstad relies heavily on income from Norwegian shoppers and tourists. But in Nordby, Sweden’s largest supermarket has lost up to 95% in sales. The gigantic parking lot outside the shopping center is deserted.
The shopping center’s manager, Ståle Løvheim, is trying to keep his spirits up.
He was asked if there is a limit to how long he and his colleagues can wait.
“I have chosen not to think those thoughts, but rather focus on what we are going to do when we open. But, of course, somewhere out there, there’s a limit.”
In Halden, only a few kilometers away across the border in Norway, the situation is the diametric opposite. Christmas lights are shining in competition with the retailers, who can rejoice over all-time high sales records.
By the week of Nov. 16, the sum of last year’s total revenue had been reached. “It’s just crazy. We have always believed that cross-border trade accounted for a lot. But now we know it’s true,” said retail manager Britt Brattli.
At Vinmonopolet, the state liquor store, turnover has increased by 200%, said store manager Anneli Christiansen.
“We’ve had to hire five new employees. It’s pretty funny now,” she said with a smile.
Measured in liters sold, revenue has almost tripled over last year. In December, Christiansen estimates that they will sell over 88,700 liters of beer, wine, and spirits, compared with 29,400 liters at the same time last year.
“These are absolutely incredible numbers,” she said.
In Strömstad, Norwegians put almost NOK 2 billion into the coffers of the Swedish state liquor store, Systembolaget, before the pandemic. Now it’s anything but busy.
“We have the most customers in all of Sweden, but not any longer,” said store manager Alexander Johansson with a sigh.
Hoping to reopen
But also in Halden, the border closure has taken its toll. At least 200 of the city’s residents who work in Swedish shops have lost their jobs.
Some of them have gotten new jobs in Halden, but far from all.
“As of today, there are 88 job openings in Halden and 1,137 job-seekers. It goes without saying that this is not going to work,” said Jon Harald Thorsås, the head of Nav, the Norwegian Labor and welfare administration office in Halden and Aremark.
Yet, despite jubilation in the retail trade industry, most people in Halden hope that the border will soon reopen.
“The Swedes are our brothers and sisters and have always been,” Halden Mayor Anne-Kari Holm said. When the border closed last spring, she thought it would last only a few months.
“We did not anticipate then that it would be a disaster for Strömstad,” she said.
What will happen when the border opens remains to be seen. In Halden, hopes are up that changed buying habits and tax breaks on alcohol and tobacco, among other things, will dampen some of the trade leakage to Sweden.
“Perhaps people have become more aware that by shopping in Halden, we can hold onto more jobs,” Holm said optimistically.
Swedish retailers, on the other hand, do not think a reduction in fees in Norway would make much difference. They pointed out that—in all instances—prices will remain much lower in Sweden.
Translated and edited by Lori Ann Reinhall
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 25, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.