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EUROPEAN UNION

No-deal Brexit ‘would create problems all over the place’: The Local meets Sweden’s EU minister

This is the second part of The Local's exclusive interview with Swedish Minister for EU Affairs Hans Dahlgren. We sat down to talk Brexit and the consequences of a potential no-deal for Brits who live here, as well as the other challenges facing the EU.

No-deal Brexit 'would create problems all over the place': The Local meets Sweden's EU minister
UK Prime Minister Theresa May debating Brexit in the House of Commons. Photo: UK Parliament/Mark Duffy via AP

The first part of The Local's interview focuses on the rights of Brits in Sweden. Read it here.

Dahlgren said he had been following the developments in the British parliament both on TV and by reading a range of English-language newspapers.

“It's fascinating, of course, for a political nerd like myself – how lively it is and how eloquent these speakers are in the exchange of arguments,” he commented. “But it's also a very serious situation.”

“It's frustrating every time [the British parliament] say no to something that we have agreed on with the government, of course. There have been lots of noes. So let's see what happens next.”

The minister stressed that there was a serious risk of a no-deal Brexit, which “would create problems all over the place”, including with the introduction of border controls and customs duty at Sweden's ports.

He also told The Local that he did not think the media were creating unnecessary drama over Brexit: “I don't think they need to create drama, what's happening in real life is drama in itself.”

READ ALSO: No-deal Brexit: New checklist for Brits in Sweden


Hans Dahlgren, left, was appointed EU minister by Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, right. Photo: Sören Andersson/TT

The next stage in the negotiations is a parliamentary vote on the agreed exit deal expected on Tuesday, but this will only happen if British Prime Minister Theresa May is able to gather enough support for the deal to pass. Whether or not this happens, the UK is expected to request an extension to the previously agreed two-year period which runs out on March 29th.

“If there is a well argued reason that the UK presents, then I don't think anyone really wants to resist such a request,” Dahlgren told The Local.

“The decision needs to be taken by the European Council unanimously, but I think as Donald Tusk said, we should be open for a longer extension if there is an argued reason for doing so. And if they want to remain in the European Union for a longer period they also have to elect members of the European Parliament, so this must be part of the whole plan, because the elections are in May.”

“But just to have the process going on and on and on without any plan for what the options on the table would be, that's not very attractive.”

The minister said he did not anticipate any further negotiation on the withdrawal agreement during any extension, but said that the EU and UK could begin to negotiate about their future relationship. 

READ ALSO: Eight essential websites for Brits in Sweden


Leave campaigners demonstrating in Sunderland, UK. Photo: AP Photo/Frank Augstein

Dahlgren said that his preference would “of course” be for the UK to stay within the EU, but that Sweden and the EU respected the decision made on the basis of the 2016 referendum.

“If [the British parliament] wants a second referendum, then it will happen – it's their sovereign decision and it's not for us to have any views on that,” he said when asked his stance on the campaign for a second public vote.

The Local pressed the minister for answers about the status of British citizens living in Sweden beyond an agreed one-year 'grace period' during which they will be exempt from residence and work permit requirements.

But Dahlgren said that it was not clear who would be eligible for permits after this year, and stated that it was not possible to negotiate this before it was known whether the UK would be leaving with a deal or not.

“I cannot answer that question because we don't know exactly what the rules will be at that time,” he said.

READ MORE: Sweden 'cannot guarantee Brits' future in no-deal Brexit', EU minister tells The Local

Sweden 'cannot guarantee Brits' future in no-deal Brexit', EU minister tells The Local
Dahlgren, 71, has been working at Sweden's top political level since the 1970s. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Across the EU, other countries have made varying guarantees to British residents.

Spain and France, for example, have said that Brits resident for less than five years at the time of a potential no-deal Brexit will likely need to meet as-yet unknown income threshold, while Malta has guaranteed a ten-year status for all Brits resident on the date of the UK's departure and Poland will offer permanent residence to those with five years' residence in Poland, and a temporary three-year permit to those with fewer years in the country.

Sweden is one of the few countries not to have outlined any plan for potential permits beyond the transition or 'grace' period, but Dahlgren said the government would follow developments and was ready to take further decisions on Brits' long-term status if necessary.

He also said he was optimistic that the UK and Sweden would continue to have “the best possible relationship” and a continued exchange of workers and students.

When asked if he could offer any reassurance to those Brits with uncertain futures in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Dahlgren emphasized that for one year their rights would remain unchanged but that beyond that it was unclear what rules would apply.

“I'm sure that during the negotiations that follow, we'll make every effort to facilitate for UK citizens now living in Sweden to have as easy an access to this country as possible. But the details of this have to be worked out during this grace period,” he said. “There is no sense of revenge here. We regret the outcome of the referendum but we will build on what we have, and we hope that we will have an orderly exit.”


Anti-Brexit protesters in London. Photo: AP Photo/Matt Dunham

Dahlgren, a seasoned foreign policy adviser who has worked for four different Swedish prime ministers, has like many Swedes a personal relationship with the UK, having also spent a summer working in a Welsh candy shop in the 1960s and later working as a TV and radio correspondent in London.

“I made a lot of trips to Belfast during that time and got to know about the Troubles in Northern Ireland firsthand, so I really understand why the UK side and Irish side want to avoid this hard border, and why the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is so very important,” Dahlgren told The Local.

Asked if he would want to be a TV correspondent in London at the moment, Dahlgren laughed and said: “Oh, that would be a great job! But I have another one to take care of right now.”

Once an agreement has been reached with the UK, the minister said, “we have to do a lot of other things in the EU. We have so many big things on our agenda here.”

 

Dahlgren said that two key priorities for the EU were improving the employment rate across the continent, particularly among younger people, and defending European values.

“The European Union was built on respect for democracy and the rule of law and freedom of expression. These values are being challenged to an extent that we haven't seen before in some of our European countries, and they even have a direct political influence in a few of them, in the government. Not in Sweden, but in several other countries we've seen political influence from the extreme right and this is a serious situation. Those of us who stand on the decent side of the political spectrum should be more active in promoting these values and defending them.”

Dahlgren also said that Sweden was making an effort to strengthen relations with other countries in the EU; the departure of the UK means that Sweden is losing the country it has voted in line with more than any other.

He named France, Germany and the Netherlands as three countries Sweden was working closely with, and added: “We also work with countries where we might not share the same view on one field but we are very like-minded in another field. It's not the case that there is a particular favourite nation.”

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TRAVEL NEWS

EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

Borders within Europe's Schengen area are meant to be open but several countries have checks in place but are they legal and will they be forced to scrap them? Claudia Delpero explains the history and what's at stake.

EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

The European Court of Justice has recently said that checks introduced by Austria at the borders with Hungary and Slovenia during the refugee crisis of 2015 may not be compatible with EU law.

Austria has broken the rules of the Schengen area, where people can travel freely, by extending temporary controls beyond 6 months without a new “serious threat”.

But Austria is not the only European country having restored internal border checks for more than six months.

Which countries have controls in place and what does the EU Court decision mean for them? 

When can EU countries re-introduce border checks?

The Schengen area, taken from the name of the Luxembourgish town where the convention abolishing EU internal border controls was signed, includes 26 states: the EU countries except for Ireland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia and Romania, plus Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Switzerland, which are not EU members.

The Schengen Borders Code sets the rules on when border controls are permitted. It says that checks can be temporarily restored where there is a “serious threat to public policy or internal security”, from the organisation of a major sport event to a terrorist attack such as those seen in Paris in November 2015.

However, these checks should be a “last resort” measure, should be limited to the period “strictly necessary” to respond to the threat and not last more than 6 months.

In exceptional circumstances, if the functioning of the entire Schengen area is at risk, EU governments can recommend that one or more countries reintroduce internal border controls for a maximum of two years. The state concerned can then continue to impose checks for another six months if a new threat emerges. 

Which countries keep border checks in place?

Countries reintroducing border controls have to notify the European Commission and other member states providing a reason for their decision. 

Based on the list of notifications, these countries currently have controls in place at least at some of their borders: 

Norway – until 11 November 2022 at ferry connections with Denmark, Germany and Sweden. These measures have been in place since 2015 due to terrorist threats or the arrival of people seeking international protection and have sometimes extended to all borders.

Austria – until November 2022 11th, since 2015, at land borders with Hungary and with Slovenia due to risks related to terrorism and organised crime and “the situation at the external EU borders”. 

Germany – until November 11th 2022, since November 12th 2021, at the land border with Austria “due to the situation at the external EU borders”.

Sweden – until November 11th 2022, since 2017, can concern all borders due to terrorist and public security threats and “shortcomings” at the EU external borders. 

Denmark – until November 11th 2022, since 2016, can concern all internal borders due to terrorist and organised criminality threats or migration.

France – until October 31st 2022 since 2015, due to terrorist threats and other events, including, since 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Estonia – until May 21st 2022, from April 22nd 2022, at the border with Latvia “to facilitate the entry and reception of people arriving from Ukraine”.

Norway, Austria, Germany and France also said they are operating checks on non-EU citizens. 

Can Schengen rules survive?

Despite the exceptional nature of these measures, there have been continuous disruptions to the free movement of people in the Schengen area in the past 15 years. 

Since 2006, there have been 332 notifications of border controls among Schengen countries, with increasing frequency from 2015. In addition, 17 countries unilaterally restored border controls at the start of the pandemic. 

In December 2021, the Commission proposed to reform the system to ensure that border controls remain an exception rather than becoming the norm. 

According to the proposals, countries should consider alternatives to border controls, such as police cooperation and targeted checks in border regions. 

When controls are restored, governments should take measures to limit their impacts on border areas, especially on the almost 1.7 million people who live in a Schengen state but work in another, and on the internal market, especially guaranteeing the transit of “essential” goods. 

Countries could also conclude bilateral agreements among themselves for the readmission of people crossing frontiers irregularly, the Commission suggested. 

If border controls have been in place for 6 months, any notification on their extension should include a risk assessment, and if restrictions are in place for 18 months, the Commission will have to evaluate their necessity. Temporary border controls should not exceed 2 years “unless for very specific circumstances,” the Commission added. 

At a press conference on April 27th, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said the EU Court ruling about Austria is in line with these proposals.

“What the court says is that member states have to comply with the time limit that is in the current legislation. Of course we can propose another time limit in the legislation… and the court also says that it’s necessary for member states, if they would like to prolong [the border controls] to really do the risk assessment on whether it’s really necessary… and that’s exactly what’s in our proposal on the Schengen Border Code.”

Criticism from organisations representing migrants

It is now for the European Parliament and EU Council to discuss and adopt the new rules.

A group of migration organisations, including Caritas Europe, the Danish Refugee Council, Oxfam International and the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) have raised concerns and called on the EU institutions to modify the Commission proposals.

In particular, they said, the “discretionary nature” of controls in border regions risk to “disproportionately target racialised communities” and “practically legitimise ethnic and racial profiling and expose people to institutional and police abuse.”

Research from the EU Fundamental Rights Agency in 2021, the groups noted, shows that people from an ‘ethnic minority, Muslim, or not heterosexual’ are disproportionately affected by police stops.

The organisations also criticize the definition of people crossing borders irregularly as a threat and a new procedure to “transfer people apprehended… in the vicinity of the border area” to the authorities of the country where it is assumed they came from without any individual assessment. 

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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