Swedish embassy tours UK by bus to give reassurance over Brexit

Rupert Neate

Sweden is embarking on a tour of the United Kingdom to reassure its 100,000 expatriates and British-based Swedish businesses worried about the threats posed by a hard Brexit.

Torbjörn Sohlström, the Swedish ambassador to the UK, said thousands of Swedes in the UK were very concerned about their right to remain in the UK and that “taking this pop-up embassy to them across the country will hopefully reassure them”.

Sohlström, who kicked off the two-week tour in Brighton on Saturday by inviting the Brighton Gay Men’s Chorus to sing Abba hits 45 years after the Swedish foursome won Eurovision in the town with Waterloo in 1974, said the UK-wide bus trip was as as much about trying to reassure Swedish businesses as it was Swedish people in the UK.

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“Swedish companies believe in the UK, but I know of quite a lot of investments that are not taking place because of the uncertainty,” he said. “I speak to most of the big Swedish companies, and I know that there are investment decisions that are not happening. All the big Swedish companies are delaying because of the uncertainty. This is very worrying.”

Sohlström, who was appointed ambassador to the UK before the referendum but took up his post after the June 2016 vote, said concerns raised by Swedish people and businesses were being echoed in the embassies of the other EU 27 countries outside the UK.

“It is similar for every embassy,” he said. “Even if there are guarantees that people will continue to have the right to remain there are a lots of questions about citizens rights. It is terribly complicated, and the people feel reassured speaking to authorities.”

Sohlström said concerns among Swedes was heightened last week when many were among thousands of UK-based EU nationals who were unable to vote on Thursday in the European elections . “We are concerned to hear that a number of Swedes were not able to vote in the UK European parliament elections, despite having done everything they could to register.”

More than 1,000 Swedish companies have operations in the UK, employing more than 100,000 UK workers. The biggest Swedish companies in the UK are Ikea, which employs 12,000 people, clothing company H&M and security firm Securitas.

Other Swedish businesses include truck and bus manufacturer Scania – which built the blue and yellow bus in which Sohlström is touring the UK offering coffee and cinnamon buns to anyone interested in Sweden – and Stena Lines, the ferry company that will take the bus from Scotland to Belfast. Fjallraven backpacks are being given away as prizes.

“There are worries that if a degree of friction is introduced [to trade] the investment they are making won’t happen in the UK,” he said.

After Brighton, the blue and yellow bus will head to Cambridge to visit the headquarters of AstraZeneca, the FTSE-100 listed British-Swedish pharmaceuticals company. “If there is one company which represents the strong links between our two countries it is AstraZeneca,” Sohlström said. The company was created in 1999 through the merger of the Swedish Astra AB and the UK’s Zeneca. “They have a private aircraft that transport scientists between Cambridge and Gothenberg,” he said.

Sohlström said he was in talks with the UK government about how to keep trade going between Sweden and the UK in the event of a hard Brexit, but said it would be very difficult to maintain strong trade links unless the UK retained strong ties to the EU.

Britain is Sweden’s fourth largest export market, worth 140bn Swedish krona (£11.5bn) with the value of exports almost doubling between 2012 and 2017. Sweden is the UK’s eighth largest export country with £10.9bn of UK goods and services sent to Sweden every year.

“We want all of our close trade and cultural links to continue,” he said. “But to a very large degree the nature of relationship will depend on the overall EU-UK relationship, and if that isn’t strong we can’t replace it.”

Sohlström jokes that Swedish-British relations started “pretty badly when we were part of the Viking raids on the British Isles in the Middle Ages” but said since then there have been “centuries of peace and we are very close both politically and culturally”. “Violence, though, is still a very important part of the relationship as we watch each other’s crime dramas. Swedes go to Midsomer to see if there’s anyone left alive, and Brits go to Wallander country (southern Sweden around the city of Ystad) to do the same.”

The UK has long been the preferred destination for Swedes moving overseas or as a base to expand businesses, such as H&M and Spotify, internationally.

“London is often their first step out into the world. They [Swedes in the UK] have built their lives here, been very successful, and they make a real contribution,” he said. “Many of the most successful Swedes in music, business and technology have come to London. A lot of the richest Swedes are also living in London.”

Until recently Princess Madeleine, the second-in-line to the Swedish throne, lived in London. Sweden’s richest person, Stefan Persson, the chair (and 47%-shareholder) of H&M, owns a 21-cottage village in Hampshire and thousands of acres of hunting land across Britain. Several members of the billionaire Rausing family, who inherited the Tetra Pak packaging empire, also live in the UK.

Many of Sweden’s male and female footballers also live and work in the UK. Three Chelsea players will represent Sweden in the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup next month.

“For Swedes, London has been the first and most natural step out into the bigger world, and from where they plan their next steps beyond,” said Sohlström, who lives in the official Swedish residence on Portland Place with his wife and two young children. “But it might not be any more. If it becomes more difficult to come here, people will choose different locations, and the great British-Swedish relationship will suffer.”