A Baltic island bucks a Danish anti-immigrant trend

It has a tunnel to build


WHEN DANES think about Lolland, which is not very often, they tend to feel sorry for it. The island in the Baltic sea, a flat expanse of fields and beaches, enjoyed brief notoriety in 2015 thanks to a TV documentary series, “On the Ass in Nakskov”, about privation in its largest town. Nakskov fell on hard times after its shipyard closed in 1986. People have been leaving the island for decades. Since 2007 its population has dropped from 49,000 to 41,000. Those outsiders Lolland still attracts are largely low-income households seeking cheaper lodgings than they can find in Copenhagen.

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But now work has begun on a tunnel linking Lolland to the German island of Fehmarn, 18km (11 miles) away. When it opens in 2029 Lolland will no longer be “just a small rural community as far from Copenhagen as you can get,” says Thomas Knudsen, its top civil servant. It will cut in half, to 90 minutes, the time it takes to drive to Hamburg. More German tourists will flock to Lolland’s beaches, he hopes. Green industries will set up shop, taking advantage of the windy island’s surplus of renewable energy.

If Lolland is to fulfil its ambitions it will need immigrants. The Fehmarnbelt tunnel will itself require thousands of workers, many of whom will be non-Danes. Unlike the national government in Copenhagen, Lolland has no qualms about welcoming them. In August the local government opened an international school. Its 55 pupils have origins as far afield as Tanzania and India. Some are Muslims. The locals’ response has been “optimistic positivity”, says Dominic Maher, the school’s head teacher.

Lolland does not just need tunnellers; it has placed English-language adverts to recruit doctors, too. Private firms need everyone from “engineers to unskilled labour”, says Mr Knudsen. Lolland would happily take Afghan refugees. Its plans to recruit foreign labour were blessed by the local branch of the generally anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party.

One reason for its openness is earlier experiences of immigration. Poles came to harvest sugar beet in the years before the first world war. Some refugees from the Balkan war in the 1990s stayed and thrived. The refugees Mr Knudsen is most worried about are those “from the Copenhagen real-estate market”.

That puts the islanders at odds with the national government, which wants to keep immigration from non-Western countries as low as possible. But they do not disagree about everything. Lolland would not welcome poorly educated refugees who would burden the economy rather than buoy it. But in this part of Denmark, productivity matters more than passports.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “The Lolland exception”

Harry Byrne

Harry Byrne

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