Why Britain’s European best friend is fretting about Brexit

People who want Britain to leave the European Union often claim it could rekindle relationships with its best friends like the US or Australia. But are they missing a better friend closer to home: Sweden?

Why Britain's European best friend is fretting about Brexit
Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and British counterpart David Cameron, presumably agreeing about something. Photo: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP/TT

Many Swedes think so, and claim that Brexit would be tough for Sweden. Here’s what they’re saying:

1. Sweden would lose a kindred spirit in Europe

If you listen to the debate in Britain, you could get the impression that EU countries gang up to impose their will on the UK. 

In fact, Britain has its own bloc of like-minded countries that often vote with it – Sweden and the Netherlands chief among them. These countries are broadly in favour of free trade and more competition. It was also this group that successfully led the charge for the first ever EU budget cut in 2013.

Sweden voted with the UK in more than 88 percent of votes between 2009 and 2015, according to Votewatch Europe.

“There are lots of reasons for Sweden to be worried. Our partnership with the UK, which like us is outside the euro but inside the EU, is really important for us,” says political commentator and Moderate Party politician Ulrica Schenström, who was ex-PM Fredrik Reinfeldt’s state secretary.

“Britain has done a lot of the heavy lifting for us non-euro countries,” she says. 

Ulrica Schenström

2. Sweden could face pressure to join the euro

Sweden voted not to join the euro in a referendum in 2003, and a poll in May 2015 showed support for joining the single currency at just 15 percent. But leading Swedish bank Swedbank says pressure for Sweden to join would increase if Britain quit the EU.

If, as is more likely in the short term, Sweden doesn’t join the euro, its influence in the decision-making processes will be reduced. “The interests of non-euro members will have less weight,” Swedbank says in its report.

3. The economy would take a beating 

Britain was Sweden’s fourth largest export market for goods last year – and the third largest for services. Sweden’s exports of services to the UK account for about 1.5 percent of GDP. Much of this, says Swedbank, would be under threat if Britain quit. 

“Financial services are a big part of this. These exports wouldn’t disappear overnight, but they would be hurt,” says Swedbank analyst Cathrine Danin. 

“And while it would be relatively easy to get a deal for trade in goods, a deal between the EU and Britain for regulating trade in services would be more complex. In the long term you would need to renegotiate the rules.”

Britain’s exit from the EU is also likely to cause economic uncertainty, which could lead to stock markets falling and the Swedish krona falling in value against the euro (although it would be likely to rise against the pound).

4. From Brexit to Swexit?

Right now only two out of Sweden’s seven parliamentary parties want 'Swexit' – the Sweden Democrats and the Left Party. But if Britain left, this could change.

“If the British leave, Euroscepticism in Sweden will grow. I’m worried we’ll end up in a Swexit debate,” says Schenström. She points to the Sweden Democrats, who are polling at around 20 percent and whose leader, Jimmy Åkesson, has called for a Swedish referendum if Britain quits.

5. Swedes would lose a friend

Swedes and Brits are so like-minded partly because Swedes are so familiar with the UK. London is the most popular foreign destination for Swedes – both for holidays and to live in. 

“We Swedes like Brits a lot. We read British crime thrillers. London is our biggest colony outside Sweden. When I was growing up and hanging out with European youth politicians, we Swedes were always drawn to the Brits,” says Schenström.

With 40,000 Swedish residents, London is indeed the most Swedish city outside of Sweden. More Swedes live in the UK than in any other country apart from the US.

While Swedes would no doubt continue to visit and live in London after Brexit, it could be made harder if Britain quits the EU – not least after a debate in which the anti-EU campaign has focused strongly on EU migration.

6. Russia would take heart

Sweden’s all too aware of the Russian bear on its doorstep – a bear that has been rattling its cage in recent years, with alleged breaches of Swedish airspace, submarine incursions and disinformation campaigns. At the same time, Vladimir Putin is one of the few world leaders not to speak out against Brexit, and many view weakening the EU as a key part of his strategy for projecting Russian power.

Britain was instrumental in pushing through EU sanctions against Russia after its invasion of Crime – a position also strongly supported by Sweden.

“We often forget that the EU is a peace project. Given the threat from Russia, as well as the migrant flows across Europe, I think it’s good if we stick together,” says Schenström.


How Europe’s population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

The populations of countries across Europe are changing, with some increasing whilst others are falling. Populations are also ageing meaning the EU is having to react to changing demographics.

How Europe's population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

After decades of growth, the population of the European Union decreased over the past two years mostly due to the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest data from the EU statistical office Eurostat show that the EU population was 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, 172,000 fewer than the previous year. On 1 January 2020, the EU had a population of 447.3 million.

This trend is because, in 2020 and 2021 the two years marked by the crippling pandemic, there have been more deaths than births and the negative natural change has been more significant than the positive net migration.

But there are major differences across countries. For example, in numerical terms, Italy is the country where the population has decreased the most, while France has recorded the largest increase.

What is happening and how is the EU reacting?

In which countries is the population growing?

In 2021, there were almost 4.1 million births and 5.3 million deaths in the EU, so the natural change was negative by 1.2 million (more broadly, there were 113,000 more deaths in 2021 than in 2020 and 531,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, while the number of births remained almost the same).

Net migration, the number of people arriving in the EU minus those leaving, was 1.1 million, not enough to compensate.

A population growth, however, was recorded in 17 countries. Nine (Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, France, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands and Sweden) had both a natural increase and positive net migration.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Five things to know about Germany’s foreign population

In eight EU countries (the Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia, Spain, Lithuania, Austria, Portugal and Finland), the population increased because of positive net migration, while the natural change was negative.

The largest increase in absolute terms was in France (+185,900). The highest natural increase was in Ireland (5.0 per 1,000 persons), while the biggest growth rate relative to the existing population was recorded in Luxembourg, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta (all above 8.0 per 1,000 persons).

In total, 22 EU Member States had positive net migration, with Luxembourg (13.2 per 1 000 persons), Lithuania (12.4) and Portugal (9.6) topping the list.

Births and deaths in the EU from 1961 to 2021 (Eurostat)

Where is the population declining?

On the other hand, 18 EU countries had negative rates of natural change, with deaths outnumbering births in 2021.

Ten of these recorded a population decline. In Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia population declined due to a negative natural change, while net migration was slightly positive.

In Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia, the decrease was both by negative natural change and negative net migration.

READ ALSO: Italian class sizes set to shrink as population falls further

The largest fall in population was reported in Italy, which lost over a quarter of a million (-253,100).

The most significant negative natural change was in Bulgaria (-13.1 per 1,000 persons), Latvia (-9.1), Lithuania (-8.7) and Romania (-8.2). On a proportional basis, Croatia and Bulgaria recorded the biggest population decline (-33.1 per 1,000 persons).

How is the EU responding to demographic change?

From 354.5 million in 1960, the EU population grew to 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, an increase of 92.3 million. If the growth was about 3 million persons per year in the 1960s, it slowed to about 0.7 million per year on average between 2005 and 2022, according to Eurostat.

The natural change was positive until 2011 and turned negative in 2012 when net migration became the key factor for population growth. However, in 2020 and 2021, this no longer compensated for natural change and led to a decline.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Over time, says Eurostat, the negative natural change is expected to continue given the ageing of the population if the fertility rate (total number of children born to each woman) remains low.

This poses questions for the future of the labour market and social security services, such as pensions and healthcare.

The European Commission estimates that by 2070, 30.3 per cent of the EU population will be 65 or over compared to 20.3 per cent in 2019, and 13.2 per cent is projected to be 80 or older compared to 5.8 per cent in 2019.

The number of people needing long-term care is expected to increase from 19.5 million in 2016 to 23.6 million in 2030 and 30.5 million in 2050.

READ ALSO: How foreigners are changing Switzerland

However, demographic change impacts different countries and often regions within the same country differently.

When she took on the Presidency of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen appointed Dubravka Šuica, a Croatian politician, as Commissioner for Democracy and Demography to deal with these changes.

Among measures in the discussion, in January 2021, the Commission launched a debate on Europe’s ageing society, suggesting steps for higher labour market participation, including more equality between women and men and longer working lives.

In April, the Commission proposed measures to make Europe more attractive for foreign workers, including simplifying rules for non-EU nationals who live on a long-term basis in the EU. These will have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council.

In the fourth quarter of this year, the Commission also plans to present a communication on dealing with ‘brain drain’ and mitigate the challenges associated with population decline in regions with low birth rates and high net emigration.

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.