Keywords: Nordic, Scandinavia, Sweden, Norway, Nordic Passport Union, Common Travel Area, customs checks, bilateral cooperation
Borders crossed: 2×2
For the second semester of my Erasmus Mundus Master’s degree, I moved to the city of Uppsala in Sweden for four months from February – May 2017. Uppsala is a beautiful, historic city set along the River Fyris, not far from the capital Stockholm and full of grandiose academic buildings, as the city is home to Scandinavia’s oldest university still running today. It’s apparently the fourth largest city in Sweden, which came as a surprise to me considering it’s home to only 150,000 people and I could cover the entire city on foot!
As picturesque as Uppsala is when covered in crisp, luminous, white snow in winter, or equally as festive as it is when the crowds descend to watch the infamous rafting at the annual Valborg celebrations at the end of April, its small size does prompt you to explore elsewhere for a change of scenery. I don’t think I’d ever tire of nearby Stockholm, but for a real adventure I headed over into neighbouring Norway: once to visit a Norwegian friend in Oslo, and once to explore and hike among the absolutely breath-taking fjords.
When crossing the border into Norway by bus and by train on my first trip, I didn’t notice even a single sign, nor was a single document of mine checked. When crossing by car on my second trip, on the Swedish side we noticed a customs building and large signs bearing the blue and yellow EU flag, to signal that we were leaving the EU – but no immigration controls, as Norway is also part of Schengen, even despite not being a member of the EU. Our car was not stopped and, to be honest, the customs check area looked eerily quiet and vacant – hardly what I’d envisage a “hard” external EU border to resemble. It may have been an example of the hi-tech, frictionless border that Theresa May envisages, armed not by staff but by ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) cameras.
Historically Norway and Sweden have long been rivals, but the two countries have since developed close ties due partly to their very close cultural roots – their two languages are mutually intelligible, they were both part of the Kalmar Union from 1397-1523, and more recently they both belonged to a ‘United Kingdom of Sweden and Norway’ for 91 years from 1814-1905. Britain and Ireland share similar characteristics, such as the English language and a historical union up until 1921. Given these similarities, if Sweden and Norway have managed to keep open their mutual border for immigration (if not quite customs) despite it being an ‘external’ EU border, then maybe the Swedish-Norwegian model could serve as an example for the future British-Irish border?
Much like the UK & Ireland’s ‘Common Travel Area’ that was established in 1952, these two Nordic countries have belonged to a ‘Nordic Passport Union’ along with Denmark, Finland and Iceland since that very same year, 1952, and it’s the closest paragon to the bilateral Common Travel Area within Europe.
In the Nordic case individuals can travel freely, but vehicles transporting goods and trade are automatically photographed, logged and checked against Norwegian and Swedish databases, enabled by a law-enforcement and customs check zone 15 km on either side of the border, which allows police from both territories to operate in the border regions. In the British-Irish case, the desire of the politicians behind Brexit is to prevent the free movement of non-British and non-Irish individuals, while minimising the impact on cross-border trade, as 31% of Northern Ireland’s £7.7 billion of manufactured goods are exported south to the Republic of Ireland over the very land border under discussion. The problem of installing an external EU border in Ireland exists both ways as, for example, wheat grown in the south is processed in north, 40% of chicken produced in the south is processed in the north, and even the fundamentally Irish Guinness is brewed in Dublin, but sent north of the border to be bottled and canned, before returning south to Dublin for export to the world.
If taking the Nordic model as inspiration for UK-Ireland border negotiations, then we can surmise that there will be need for bilateral cooperation between the two countries (adding another party into the mix of the already strained UK-EU negotiations) and the need for a hi-tech solution comprising ANPR cameras and shared databases, to reduce the long queues of vehicles and the impact on cross-border trade, that so many of the Irish currently fear.
 Sylvia de Mars, Colin R.G. Murray, Aoife O’Donoghue and Ben T.C. Warwick, “The Common Travel Area: Prospects After Brexit,” The Centre for Cross Border Studies, last modified January 2017, http://crossborder.ie/site2015/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/The_Common_Travel_Area_Prospects_After_Brexit_Jan2017.pdf.
 Derek Scally, “Close Sweden-Norway ties despite EU border dividing them,” The Irish Times, last modified June 13, 2016, http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/close-sweden-norway-ties-despite-eu-border-dividing-them-1.2683072.
 Nuala McCann and Christina McSorley, “The Hardest Border,” BBC News, last modified May 31, 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/The_hardest_border.