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‘I hope there will be adults in the room during Brexit negotiations’

The Local spoke to Sweden's ambassador to the UK, Torbjörn Sohlström, to talk about Brexit, fake news, and the deep roots of the Swedish-British relationship.

'I hope there will be adults in the room during Brexit negotiations'
UK Prime Minister Theresa May and her Swedish counterpart Stefan Löfven. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

What kind of image do people have of Sweden in the UK?

My impression is that there is a positive image of Sweden in the UK. Not every single individual in the UK has a very clear idea of what Sweden represents and what's happening here, but to a surprising degree people have a sense of Sweden.

They've been here, they watch Swedish TV series – I'm not sure it always gives the right impression, they might think we go around murdering each other all the time! – and of course Swedish companies are extremely present in the UK. People buy their furniture at Ikea, they eat cinnamon buns at their local coffee shop, they buy their clothes at H&M, so whether they know it or not, most people in the UK have some sort of relationship to Sweden.

It's a basic positive image in the sense that there are a lot of similarities, a long history together, extensive trade, a significant number of Swedes living in the UK and an increasing number of Brits living here. Swedes and Brits are not so different.

But obviously, where there is sun, there is shadow. There's been a debate in particular parts of the British press about difficulties in Sweden linked to migration and organized crime over the past couple of years. Some of that is true; we have a number of challenges in these areas, but I think in some cases it has not been a fair description of what actually goes on in Sweden – there has been politically biased reporting that does not present reality. But our assessment, and there have been studies too, and my own experience from travelling around talking to Brits is that the overall impression and attitude to Sweden is extremely positive.

When you travel around the country, is there a specific part of the Swedish image that you try to promote in the UK?

There are lots of things to talk about. I normally speak about the breadth of the relationship and the fact that we are politically like-minded countries. Britain and Sweden are the two countries that voted the same way most frequently in the EU over the past ten years, we have an extremely close cultural relationship. Business-wise, there are about 1,000 Swedish companies in the UK and about 1,000 British companies in Sweden, 100,000 Swedes in the UK and every year the number of British tourists coming to Sweden is increasing. It's an explosion of cooperation and contact in all areas.

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Something I like to mention is that the latest iteration of these business links is a 'tech bridge' between London and Stockholm. London is the European capital with the largest number of companies there but if you look at the per capita concentration, Stockholm is second only to Silicon Valley in terms of the concentration of unicorns. We've started events bringing together Swedish and British companies that are successful in different sectors of the new economy. So that's something we put emphasis on, but the real story is that we are so close in so many areas.


Swedish ambassador Torbjörn Sohlström. Photo: Kristian Pohl/Regeringskansliet

Have you ever had to take any steps to counter misleading reports of Sweden?

The overall relationship is strong, it has deep roots, a lot of people have real life experiences have Sweden, and I think this will outweigh the negative reporting.

The most important thing is letting the strong aspects speak for themselves, but if we as an embassy saw any serious media or serious politician misrepresent Sweden we would do what we can to correct them. Quite often people who spread exaggerated or inaccurate stories often do so to pursue a political agenda and I'm not sure they'd be open to effort from our side to correct their story.

And are there any areas where you think one country can learn from the other?

For 1,000 years, we learned from Britain. We were a fairly poor, dark country up in the north, whereas Britain was more developed, richer, more populous, way more advanced in terms of science and industrialization.

Over the past 50 years or so we have had a much more equal relationship. We are still learning from Britain, but we also have things to offer in this relationship now, in all areas.

Take the Swedish-British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca: they have three big science hubs in the world, of which two are in Sweden and the UK. There's a plane going back and forward almost every day with scientists going between the two.

In politics, I think that there's a lot of debate about equality and inclusion in both Sweden and the UK. I think Brits are often better than Sweden at inclusion in terms of ethnic minorities whereas I think we've probably come further in gender equality.

So do you think Sweden can teach the UK something in that respect, for example in terms of Sweden's so-called feminist foreign policy?

The UK is very close to us in that respect; it doesn't say it has a feminist foreign policy but we cooperate with the UK in many of the areas which are important to the feminist foreign policy. Like us, the UK pushes equality and gender aspects in international engagement.

The only difference really is the label of feminism that we use. There is a UK ambassador for gender issues, and when the UK hosted the Heads of State of the Commonwealth earlier this year, it made the education of girls a big priority for the commonwealth, which is an important aspect of a feminist foreign policy.


Torbjörn Sohlström and his wife Helena at an embassy event celebrating the Ingmar Bergman centennial. Photo: Mark Earthy/TT

With close ties in so many areas, how would you say Brexit is affecting the relationship?

We will have to see. For us however, it's negative for three reasons. We will risk a degree of friction in the extremely close bilateral ties we have. We might have more friction in trade in terms of customs and trade, there might be more friction in the movement of people. 

Secondly we will lose an ally in the EU. The UK is a big country and it's been important for us to have a big country as a friend, but now we are losing an ally. We will deal with that, but it's a loss.

Thirdly, we are convinced that Europe must work together to deal with an increasing number of challenges that Europe as a whole is facing. We think that we will be weaker collectively by not working together as one. We hope we can continue to do that in many fields, but the UK leaving the EU is a negative.

What is important for us now is that we have an orderly process and minimize the damage from Brexit as much as possible. We absolutely have to avoid these 'no-deal' scenarios, which would be catastrophic. I really hope there are enough adults in the room, on both sides, to avoid this. Looking at the challenges Europe is facing, we can't afford mutual damage of the kind that a no-deal Brexit would mean.

Have you heard from Swedish residents and companies about their concerns?

The uncertainty at the moment is a big problem, and among the people, there are some concerns. There is a preliminary deal on citizens' rights that I think will be a good outcome . I think the British government has done a good job in being much clearer than it was initially that EU citizens including Swedes are welcome, that Britain wants them to stay and they're making a really important contribution. These messages have been extremely important because I think there was a sense that it wasn't clear whether people were appreciated, and people were quite shocked about this because they'd always seen Britain as an extremely open country for foreigners. 

The companies are looking at what sort of economic relationship there will be after the UK's departure. There are companies in basically every sector of the British economy, they have flourished and grown as a result of the single market and the fact they have been able to trade friction-free with Sweden and the rest of the EU. A number of big Swedish companies are really concerned about what a degree of friction at the border would mean for their production. If there will be friction in trade, it will be a minus for the trade between our countries, for the economy, and for our relationship. Britain will still be an extremely close partner, and I will certainly do everything I can to protect and promote the relationship, but Brexit does mean things. Britain is not just leaving the Brussels institutions, it is also leaving a club of which Sweden is a part.

 

How would you sum up your top priorities in your role as ambassador?

To summarize in just one sentence, I'd say it is to protect or promote our relationship. Protect, because Brexit means that this fantastic relationship, parts of it can be challenged and we need to do whatever we can to minimize the damage. But at the same time, we should not only do damage limitation, we should also develop and promote, so there are areas where we can go further: technology, startup companies, the new economy, security policy, military cooperation, environmental research – these are areas where we are moving forward. We need to make sure that we don't lose things because we are sitting on opposite sides of the Brexit negotiations. 

So far, things are going extremely well. The small regret I could have is that the focus on Brexit negotiations means there are other things we are not doing; we are already paying this opportunity cost. 

If there is a message which is beyond what I usually say, it is really that I hope there will be adults in the room during Brexit negotiations; people talking seriously. This is not a time to create additional damage, it's a time when the UK and the rest of Europe must hold together and fight for common interests. It's so clearly in the interest of Sweden and the rest of the EU and the UK to have an agreed way forward so I am optimistic that we will find that way.

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EUROPEAN UNION

How Europe plans to ease long-term residence rules for non-EU nationals

Non-EU citizens living in the European Union are eligible for a special residence status that allows them to move to another country in the bloc. Getting the permit is not simple but may get easier, explains Claudia Delpero.

How Europe plans to ease long-term residence rules for non-EU nationals

The European Commission proposed this week to simplify residence rules for non-EU nationals who live on a long-term basis in the European Union.

The intention is to ease procedures in three areas: acquiring EU long-term residence status, moving to other EU countries and improving the rights of family members. 

But the new measures will have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council, which is made of national ministers. Will EU governments support them?

What is EU long-term residence?

Non-EU citizens who live in EU countries on a long-term basis are eligible for long-term residence status, nationally and at the EU level. 

This EU status can be acquired if the person has lived ‘legally’ in an EU country for at least five years, has not been away for more than 6 consecutive months and 10 months over the entire period, and can prove to have “stable and regular economic resources” and health insurance. Applicants can also be required to meet “integration conditions”, such as passing a test on the national language or culture knowledge. 

The EU long-term residence permit is valid for at least five years and is automatically renewable. But the status can be lost if the holder leaves the EU for more than one year (the EU Court of Justice recently clarified that being physically in the EU for a few days in a 12-month period is enough to maintain the status).

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: How many non-EU citizens live in European Union countries?

Long-term residence status grants equal treatment to EU nationals in areas such as employment and self-employment or education. In addition, EU long-term residence grants the possibility to move to other EU countries under certain conditions. 

What does the European Commission want to change?

The European Commission has proposed to make it easier to acquire EU long-term residence status and to strengthen the rights associated with it. 

Under new measures, non-EU citizens should be able to cumulate residence periods in different EU countries to reach the 5-year requirement, instead of resetting the clock at each move. 

This, however, will not apply to individuals who used a ‘residence by investment’ scheme to gain rights in the EU, as the Commission wants to “limit the attractiveness” of these routes and not all EU states offer such schemes. 

All periods of legal residence should be fully counted towards the 5 years, including those spent as students, beneficiaries of temporary protection or on temporary grounds. Stays under a short-term visa do not count.

Children who are born or adopted in the EU country having issued the EU long-term residence permit to their parents should acquire EU long-term resident status in that country automatically, without residence requirement, the Commission added.

READ ALSO: Why it may get easier for non-EU citizens to move to another European Union country

EU countries should also avoid imposing a minimum income level for the resources condition but consider the applicant’s individual circumstances, the Commission suggests.

Integration tests should not be too burdensome or expensive, nor should they be requested for long-term residents’ family reunifications. 

The Commission also proposed to extend from 12 to 24 months the possibility to leave the EU without losing status, with facilitated procedures (no integration test) for the re-acquisition of status after longer absences.

A person who has already acquired EU long-term residence status in one EU country should only need three years to acquire the same status in another EU member state. But the second country could decide whether to wait the completion of the five years before granting social benefits. 

The proposal also clarifies that EU long-term residents should have the same right as EU nationals with regard to the acquisition of private housing and the export of pensions, when moving to a third country. 

Why make these changes?

Although EU long-term residence exists since 2006, few people have benefited. “The long-term residents directive is under-used by the member states and does not provide for an effective right to mobility within the EU,” the Commission says. 

Around 3.1 million third-country nationals held long-term residence permits for the EU in 2017, compared to 7.1 million holding a national one. “we would like to make the EU long-term residence permit more attractive,” said European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson.

The problems are the conditions to acquire the status, too difficult to meet, the barriers faced when moving in the EU, the lack of consistency in the rights of long-term residents and their family members and the lack of information about the scheme.

Most EU member states continue to issue “almost exclusively” national permits unless the applicant explicitly asks for the EU one, an evaluation of the directive has shown.

READ ALSO: Pensions in the EU: What you need to know if you’re moving country

This proposal is part of a package to “improve the EU’s overall attractiveness to foreign talent”, address skill shortages and facilitate integration in the EU labour market of people fleeing Ukraine. 

On 1 January 2021, 23.7 million non-EU nationals were residing in the EU, representing 5.3% of the total population. Between 2.25 to 3 million non-EU citizens move to the EU every year. More than 5 million people have left Ukraine for neighbouring states since the beginning of the war in February. 

Will these measures also apply to British citizens?

These measures also apply to British citizens, whether they moved to an EU country before or after Brexit. 

The European Commission has recently clarified that Britons living in the EU under the Withdrawal Agreement can apply for a long-term residence too.

As Britons covered by the Withdrawal Agreement have their residence rights secured only in the country where they lived before Brexit, the British in Europe coalition recommended those who need mobility rights to seek EU long-term residence status. 

These provisions do not apply in Denmark and Ireland, which opted out of the directive.

What happens next?

The Commission proposals will have to be discussed and agreed upon by the European Parliament and Council. This is made of national ministers, who decide by qualified majority. During the process, the proposals can be amended or even scrapped. 

In 2021, the European Parliament voted through a resolution saying that third-country nationals who are long-term residents in the EU should have the right to reside permanently in other EU countries, like EU citizens. The Parliament also called for the reduction of the residency requirement to acquire EU long-term residence from five to three years.

READ ALSO: COMPARE: Which EU countries grant citizenship to the most people?

EU governments will be harder to convince. However, presenting the package, Commission Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, said proposals are likely to be supported because “they fit in a broader framework”, which represents the “construction” of the “EU migration policy”. 

National governments are also likely to agree because large and small employers face skill shortages, “especially in areas that are key to our competitiveness, like agri-food, digital, tourism, healthcare… we need people,” Schinas said.

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

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