The inventiveness of merchants and governments across Europe has led to many strange price differences between neighbouring countries. Sugar, petrol, vodka, wine – the list is endless. The European Union has led to some harmonisation, but you still have lots of Danes going to Germany to shop, not to mention Brits going across to France.
National governments have some tough decisions to make. Finland has lowered the prices of hard liquor to avoid to much border trade with Estonia and Russia. The result is a paradise for hard drinkers, and even a casual observer can see the damages.
I spent a few years of my life in the employ of the Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, trying to convince the Norwegian electorate that the Maastricht Treatywas Good For Them. As everyone knows, they were not amused, and massive oil wealth has meant that we can buy ourselves out of any problems arising from being on the outside.
Well, there is more to it than that, obviously. To be able to sell our salmon and oil, we have to open our markets for goods and services from the EU, and are quite content to do that. We could not possibly build our roads and hospitals without hired hands from Poland and the Baltic republics. We could not have our overpriced pint of Carlsberg lager without the Swedish waiters to serve them.
We adopt EU legislation, too, in fact we are more eager than most member states. We Nordics have a very Lutheran feeling of obligation towards legal committment, and this philosophy is prevailent in the government as well. Even parties who are extremely against European integration when they are in opposition accept the sitaution when they occupy the ministries.
But still. We are not a part of the EU agricultural policy, and we do not have open borders when it comes to alcohol, either. At the same time the border between Sweden and Norway is as open as the one between, say, Belgium and the Netherlands. People commute by road, rail and plane. Norwegians snap up holiday homes in Sweden. Goods travel freely across the border based on a trust in that serious businesses keep their papers in orders, and the customs officers process papers and conduct only spot checks.
This has led to the establishment of a number of shopping centres on the Swedish side. About one million people live within a driving distance of about an hour and a half. A significant number of those live even closer, and they are happy to buy their groceries at a 20-30% discount.
The most interesting shopping centres are the ones including a branch of the government alcohol stores Systembolaget, but when I visited last week, we did not have time for seeking out one of them, instead going for one of the stores right across the border.
The main purpose of our visit was to buy sweets for an birthday, and the size of the confectionery shop was overwhelming. We bought far more than we ought to, before descending on the supermarket next door.
One aspect of Swedish alcohol policy makes them the odd man out. Only beer with an alcohol content below 3,5% can be sold in supermarkets. This has, naturally, led to a vast range of beers balancing on that threshold. With a population of close to ten million, Sweden is an interesting market. This has mad many of the breweries across Europe to make watered downspecial versions of their beers solely for Sweden. You have English bottled bitters, Bavarian hefeweissen, Austrian and Dutch lagers – even a low alcohol beer brewed by Borg, a Norwegian brewery just across the border who worry about their market escaping.
So, who are profiting on this boom in the border trade? Sure, a few Swedish farmers have had a bonanza. But most of the money goes back again. The shopping centres and supermarkets are actually owned and run by Norwegian companies.
And you don’t need to worry about the language problem. (Not that the difference is big). The cashier would be Norwegian as well, driving a few kilometers across to work.
The beer? thin and watery, though a few of them are in fact quite decent. You’ll need a shot of something stronger on the side to get a buzz, though. But these are fine lawnmower beers. At half the price of their full strength brethren on the other side of the border.