Swedish politician fights in EU to improve life for foreign students

Many foreign students studying in Europe run into visa problems during or after their programmes. Swedish Member of European Parliament Cecilia Wikström is trying to change that. SI News spoke with the politician about trying to change EU law.

The European Union has been operating under its current name since 1993. The 28 member states of the EU share much, including laws on taxes, human rights, and free movement. But rules for foreigners entering the EU are vague at best.

”When it comes to students and researchers from outside the EU, there is no ceiling and no floor,” Cecilia Wikström says. “If we are a union, we must have a common set of regulations.”

Wikström is a Swedish Member of European Parliament, representing the Liberal Peoples’ Party of Sweden (Folkpartiet). 

She is also a member of an advisory commitee which advices other Parliament members on ethical issues, and she leads the European Parliament's work on several issues – including laws affecting foreign students and researchers. At the moment she is trying to make these laws much, much better.

In Germany, students who finish studying have 18 months to look for a job or something before they have to leave the country,” Wikström tells SI News. “But in Sweden, until recently, we just gave them a diploma and ten days to leave the country.”

Wikström was instrumental in changes to Swedish law which now mean that students doing doctoral studies in the country can receive a permanent residence permit. But the terms are not as good for Masers and Bachelor-level students, and vary greatly within the EU. Even the application processes are incredibly different.

“In Sweden sometimes students don’t get a response at all to an application, whereas in Holland you get a response after three weeks,” she says.

In addition to these struggles, students and researchers frequently struggle with free movement and are not allowed to switch countries to attend conferences or further their studies in the EU. It can also be difficult to bring family members along.

For the past couple of years Wikström has been working in the European Parliament to create legislation to change all of that.

”In a world which is as knowledge-based and globalized as ours, we must open up the business world as well,” the politician says. “We have to make it easier to come here, and easier for students, researchers, and others to work and bring their families as well.”

On February 3, Cecilia Wikström will be arguing in European Parliament in Brussels to make the situation better.

While the European Commission has already suggested much better terms for students and researchers, Wikström is fighting for something even more.

“People should be able to stay 18 months after their programme,” Wikström says. “It works for Germany, so why wouldn’t we follow the best example?”

In addition, Wikström says the EU should make it easier for students, not just researchers, to bring their families with them while living in an EU member state such as Sweden.

“Students can be any age, and many already have families. And their families should be able to come and work as well.”

Wikström is also fighting to get the waiting time for an application down to just 30 days, so that anyone applying to a research or student position in the EU will receive a response within one month.

The European Commission agreed with Wikström’s suggestions, but the European Council, which shares legislative power with the Commission, was not as keen.

The Council has argued that those who have finished their programmes should only be allowed 6 months in the country, and that those applying should receive a response within 90 days.

“Why on earth would we need that much time? That’s like snail mail,” Wikström exclaims in frustration as she explains the suggestion.

The Council has also suggested limiting free movement within EU states – something of which Wikström is highly critical.

“Free movement is the most important symbol of the EU we have,” she says. “Of course it should be extended to those from outside of the EU who are here.”

The reason for the European Council’s cold feet in regards to these proposals has to do with unemployment rates, and the desire to retain EU jobs for EU members. But Wikström said that’s the wrong way of viewing the situation.

”We need to give jobs to those who can do the jobs best and contribute the most to Europe. And frequently, the people who want to come to the EU and work take the jobs that other people don’t want to do anyway.”

Wikström says she sees a tough battle ahead of her, but she is determined to make a difference.

“I am not used to losing,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.

“After all, we will need all of these people in the future, that I promise.”

Our conversation with Cecilia Wikström took place at the European Parliament House in Stockholm. Follow them and find out about events here.