The morning of 24th June last year might was the consummation of forty years of Eurosceptic fantasies, but many Swedes felt more like they had been jilted by their long-term lover. Yet now there’s a growing feeling that Sweden is moving on, says James Savage, Co-Founder and Strategy Director of The Local Europe.
Touring the TV and radio studios of Stockholm, the politicians I met from across the political spectrum were worried about the future – for Britain, Europe and Sweden.
Yes, Sweden was losing its closest ally in making Europe a more free-market friendly, flexible trading bloc. It was also losing the one country that made non-euro countries a force to be reckoned with. Swedes’ strong cultural affinity with the Brits – fostered through four centuries of Protestantism and six decades of pop culture – means that this relationship is as much emotional and cultural as it is economic.
Many even speculated before the referendum that if Britain left, Sweden would follow
But this wave of Euroscepticism has failed to appear. Indeed, people in Sweden are less likely to want to leave the EU than people in many other EU countries, like France.
Now, if the conversation turns to Brexit, most Swedes I know roll their eyes and ask me whether it will really happen, with a follow-up question about whether Scotland will break away as a result. Then they move on.
And while the concern about the economic and political impact remains, now many previously Anglocentric Swedes are looking increasingly towards Germany as their main partner in Europe.
For many, this feels like a natural move – many older Swedes learnt German before they learnt English, something that only changed after the Second World War. I recently spoke to a prominent business lobbyist who said lots of his colleagues were now starting German classes. Angela Merkel was recently in Stockholm to meet Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén, in a visit that underlined Germany’s rising importance to Sweden.
The rise of Donald Trump – not a popular figure in Sweden – and Theresa May’s keenness to hold his hand, has spurred on this pivot towards Germany.
There’s a logic behind this: Germany is already a bigger export market for Sweden than the UK, and Swedes are rediscovering their cultural, political and linguistic links with a country that for the past few decades has been eclipsed in the Swedish consciousness by the big English Speaking countries. This isn’t to say Sweden won’t push for a deal that keeps Britain close to the EU – the government says this is what it wants – but it will put the interests of the EU first.
Similarly, many Brits in Sweden are moving on. Leaving the European Union leaves Brits in many parts of the EU in a state of deep uncertainty, with no guarantee that they’ll have the right to remain. Many of The Local’s readers in France, Germany and Italy are worried that they’ll find themselves very vulnerable if they lose their jobs or get divorced. Retired people worry, with some justification, that they will lose their rights to healthcare.
But these issues are less of a problem for Brits in Sweden, where citizenship is open to anyone who has been here for five years – three to those who have a Swedish partner – and where the work permit scheme is reasonably flexible.
Of course it does make some things more difficult: some wonder whether this will make it harder for them to move back to the UK with a Swedish partner, and others whose jobs rely on trade between the UK and Sweden are concerned that Brexit will have long term negative effects on this. Practical concerns aside, some simply gaze from afar and wonder when Britain became so angry and isolationist. Some others, probably a minority, are glad Britain cocked a snook at the bureaucratic EU, and to hell with the personal consequences.
Either way, people in Sweden, including Brits, are looking to a Swedish future in which Britain is ––culturally, politically and economically – just a little bit further away.
James Savage, The Local Europe
Photo Credit: luzitanija