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'Brexit isn't just a concern for British citizens in Sweden'

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'Brexit isn't just a concern for British citizens in Sweden'
Pro-EU demonstrators fly flags in London. File photo: AP Photo/Frank Augstein
18:59 CEST+02:00
As an American in Sweden, little more than the whims of fate and politics separate my situation from that of British citizens living here, writes Victoria Martínez.

Each time I speak to or read about a British citizen in Sweden scurrying to obtain Swedish citizenship, I can't help but repeat to myself the proverb, "There but for the grace of God go I." Not for religious reasons, but because I'm a US citizen living in Sweden.

As is repeatedly remarked, it is sometimes hard to tell which of these two "World Powers" is doing the best job of embarrassing itself on the world stage. While that may be true, I'm at least not faced with the imminent prospect of leaving the country I call home because of the political chaos in my country of origin. I don't have to scurry to do anything to stay in a country where my family and I have put down (hopefully permanent) roots.

But the fact that this is exactly what many Brits in Sweden and elsewhere are facing does make me think about how I would feel and what I would do in the same circumstances. In other words, if my native country were not only "embarrassing" me, but also threatening to upend my existence.

Of the themes I hear and read repeatedly by British citizens in Sweden, two stand out as particularly relatable to me. First, that they have a deep love for their native country but feel profoundly disappointed in the political situation there. Second, that they prefer living in Sweden because they feel that the lifestyle and social system are superior to those "back home."

Both sentiments are regularly steamrolled by people who seem bound and determined to be divisive – a tactic that, as I see it, has not only helped to create, but also helps to fuel the current political nightmares in the US and UK. In response to this, I quote 82-year-old Brit Tim Crosfield, a newly-minted Swedish citizen whose interview with Swedish news agency TT was recently featured in The Local Sweden, "I'm a longtime conservative but I'm a remainer. It's no longer possible to say 'you are right or left therefore you are this or that.'"

People like Mr Crosfield give me hope that there are rational people out there who don't see things like political affiliations and national identity as punishing and inflexible iron rods used to build barriers and stoke sectarianism.      

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File photo: Helena Wahlman/imagebank.sweden.se

Living abroad in three countries has opened my mind in countless ways and helped me recognize times in my life when I thought I was flexible in my thinking but was really barely stretching. Even a relatively big bubble is still a bubble. Through its hazy perimeter, I saw much that was different. While I accepted those differences, I was nonetheless incapable of making qualified comparisons or judgments.

For instance, when my husband, who is from Spain, and I were living in the US, I couldn't fully appreciate why he took issue with the healthcare and health insurance system there. It had always "worked" for me and was the only system I really knew. I acknowledged that the system in Spain was different but didn't see how it could necessarily be "better".

Then I slipped on our wet kitchen floor in Texas and fractured my skull. In a couple of years, despite being well (and expensively) insured, we saw ourselves go from relatively affluent to nearly bankrupt as extensive and expensive medical treatments and my inability to work drained us in every way. It was a harsh reality check.

When we made the move to Spain, I still required certain medical treatments and prescription medications. In the US, these had cost us a thousand or more dollars a month, in addition to health insurance. In Spain, we paid next to nothing. And, because the healthcare system in Spain works as it does, my course of treatment went from one of never-ending therapies and medications to one that helped me recover to the point where I didn't need them anymore.

Yes, that was Spain and I'm supposed to be writing about Sweden; but that experience opened my mind in a way that has extended to Sweden, where I've had a very good experience with the healthcare system for almost three years. Is it perfect here? Of course not, but I can compare it positively to the system in the US, and I also have my experience of Spain's system as an additional gauge.

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British Prime Minister Theresa May and her Swedish counterpart Stefan Löfven. File photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

The bottom line is, the healthcare system in the US, with its high and potentially crippling costs, is one of the reasons I would not want to return to live there, along with other key issues like the lack of gun control, the exorbitant cost of child care and quality higher education, non-existent parental leave and limited family time via paid holidays, and so on.

These considerations, my 15-year marriage to a Spanish/EU citizen, years of living abroad, and my critique of the current political situation in the US do not mean I don't "love" my native country or have somehow abandoned it. But my situation does make me both an insider and an outsider to it, with a nuanced perspective and sense of place and belonging. Mr Crosfield summed it up beautifully when he said, "I do wonder if I'm still British. Or am I somewhere in the middle, somewhere offshore in the North Sea."

Those of us who live outside our country of origin, for whatever reason, do essentially live "somewhere in the middle." And, as with all of humanity, most of the time, surprisingly little separates us from an entirely different life or existence than the one we have at any given moment. Those with advantages can lose them as quickly as those with none can gain them.

Though these whims of fate are often attributed to some god or gods, the current state of affairs in the UK and the US – and the adverse effects they are having on untold numbers of people – are further proof that it is just as likely (if not more likely) that they are the result of politics.

Whichever force may be at work, the result is the same, and it is only by the proverbial "grace of God" that I am not also scurrying for a Swedish passport as many Brits are now doing.

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

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