Off-piste: Brits in remote Swedish areas wary of Brexit path ahead

From Jokkmokk in the Arctic Circle to isolated forests on the edges of villages, plenty of Brits have opted for the quiet life in Sweden, settling in isolated areas away from the country's largest cities. While Brexit is a worry for some of these British citizens, it has also been an opportunity to exploit for some of the country's most remote regions.

Off-piste: Brits in remote Swedish areas wary of Brexit path ahead
Fritsla, Mark municipality. Photo: Mike Jefferson.

There are 86 British citizens living in the municipality of Mark, southeast of Gothenburg, according to data provided to The Local by Statistics Sweden. Two live in the village of Fritsla. Mike Jefferson is one of them.

Jefferson, 32, his Swedish wife Boel and their daughter settled in Fritsla, a village of just over 2,000 people near the Swedish textile hub of Borås, in 2016. They were lured by the calm, tranquility and quality of life.

“If you're not in the heart of the city you're surrounded by forests and lakes in Sweden,” Jefferson told The Local. “It has been absolutely lovely since day one.”

The home Mike Jefferson and his family bought in Fritsla. Photo: Mike Jefferson. 

That is until the headache of a no-deal Brexit began to loom on Jefferson's horizon.

READ ALSO: How the Swedish Migration Agency is preparing for a no-deal Brexit

“I have to rely on Sweden and the EU to offer me any security. I've felt like a bargaining chip or completely ignored by my own government,” says Jefferson, who works as a business change management consultant helping large companies, like Volvo, implement technological overhauls.

Mike Jefferson with his wife and 4-year-old daughter near their home in Fritsla. Photo: Mike Jefferson. 

“I'm not as worried now since the Swedish government have taken action to guarantee I can stay for the next year,” says Jefferson, who plans to apply for Swedish citizenship when he is eligible from September 2019.

Should the UK exit the EU without a deal on March 29th, British citizens resident in Sweden will have to apply for permits in order to continue living and working in the country. The government has said it will offer a one-year period during which Brits can remain in Sweden and apply for the permits without any change to their rights.

However, it is still not clear whether those permits would be regulated by new legislation or existing work permit rules, with Swedish business leaders warning that the latter would mean many Brits risk having their applications rejected.

Jefferson says low house prices and the fact that three or four lakes are within cycling distance of his home were key factors in moving to the Swedish countryside – reversing the predominant migration trend of young Swedes moving from rural areas to larger cities in search of work.

That trend has even led to remote Swedish municipalities proactively enticing Brits to take up residence in their territory.

The northeastern Swedish municipality of Skellefteå urgently needed to recruit teachers for new schools that are being built to cater to 7,000 people who are expected to move to the area in the next three to five years.

NorthVolt is building Europe's largest electric battery factory in Skellefteå. Large-scale production is scheduled to begin in 2020 on that project, according to the Skellefteå local government. 

“We were the first kommun (municipality) to look outside Scandinavia for teachers,” Paul Connolly, a consultant to the local government in Skellefteå, and a regular contributor to The Local Sweden, said.

“We used the Brexit hook quite explicitly,” says Connolly. “We placed an ad in the Guardian. We said in the copy: 'If you want to still work in the EU…'”

Seven British teachers took up the invitation to move to Skellefteå on a one-year contract, he says, and three or four more are expected to follow in their footsteps soon.

READ ALSO: Northern Sweden needs immigrants and tourists

Even further north, in the Arctic Circle, the municipality of Jokkmokk had already reached out to Brits before Brexit to try to tackle increasing depopulation as local residents head south looking for work and broader life opportunities.

David Carpenter launched the project Emigrate2Jokkmokk in 2011, with the support of the local government, with a view to luring international citizens to the area.

“Northern Swedes often do not see the beauty around them as people from other countries do. I think this is why they are not so active in promoting it as a destination to move to. We didn't have that problem. We could see the attraction of living here,” Carpenter told The Local Sweden in 2015. “So we decided to do something about it.”

Ten British citizens now live in Jokkmokk – total population just over 3,000 – according to Tomas Johansson of Statistics Sweden.

Funding for the Emigrate2Jokkmokk project was discontinued in 2016, Carpenter told The Local. A spokesman for the Jokkmokk municipality was not available for comment.

Many Brits however seem to concur with Carpenter about the attraction of living in Swedish rural areas.

“My time is taken up cutting grass in summer and cutting paths through snow in winter,” Frank Mitchell, 66 – who took early retirement to settle in a house in the forests outside Järlåsa, 45 minutes by car from Uppsala, with his Swedish wife – told The Local.

The view from Frank Mitchell's home outside Järlåsa. Photo: Frank Mitchell. 

When Mitchell isn't immersed in the nature around his home, he gives private guitar and karate lessons in the nearby city of Uppsala.

But Mitchell is not in tune with Brexiters. “I think it is the biggest mistake that the UK has ever made,” Mitchell told The Local. “I worry about what will happen if there is a no-deal and more devaluation of the pound,” he adds, citing fears that his British pension could be further devalued in the future.

Mitchell secured permanent residency in 2018, however, and isn't planning on going anywhere. “I told my kids: the only way I'll be going back is in a box,” quips Mitchell.

This article is part of a broader series on Brits living in remote, rural areas in Europe. Read the debut in the series on The Local Italy below.

READ MORE: How Brexit has unsettled Brits in the remote Sicilian town they helped to revive

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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.