OPINION: Working in Spain – EU citizens still need to jump through hoops

The European Union supposedly gives all citizens equal access to live and work in any member state, but in reality the bureaucracy surrounding things like Spain’s NIE number gets foreigners tied up in knots, writes Sara Berg, a Swede living in Girona.

OPINION: Working in Spain - EU citizens still need to jump through hoops
The author, Sara Berg, is studying Catalan in Girona. Photo: mletschert/Depositphotos, Private

I’m an immigrant in another EU country and now it’s my turn to feel what it’s like to be on the inside, yet still outside. 

In Sweden, EU citizens often face bureaucratic obstacles when entering the labour market: employers claim (incorrectly) that you need a Swedish personal identification number before you can get a contract, while the tax agency retorts that you need a contract to qualify for an ID number. 

You find yourself in a catch-22 that effectively makes you unemployable. You’re inside, yet still outside. You have the right to be there, but no real possibility to live there. 

Now I’m here in Girona, a fantastic Catalonian town full of cafés and restaurants. I’m studying Catalan and my vocabulary is growing. And I was offered a job in a café! 

I feel ready to throw myself into the throng, making cappuccinos and pouring espressos long into the night. But the bureaucracy has put a stop to it. 

My would-be boss told me I needed a NIE number to get a contract. But I can’t get a NIE number without a job contract. It’s catch-22 for me too.

Whether or not a country is interested in taking care of EU citizens boils down to the economy. Countries make their own rules and laws that make it difficult for EU citizens from other countries to be included in society. 

This enables each nation to decide who can work and settle there, and who can’t; for whom the door is open and for whom it’s closed. 

I think it’s time for the EU to put pressure on member states to create real conditions for free movement – so we all can get housing, work, and can really live in another EU country. 

For now, your possibilities in Europe are seriously limited. It’s very probably you won’t be well received in another member state. No one will help you or care about you. To claim otherwise is false advertising. 

Sara Berg has taken a leave of absence from her job as a social worker in Gothenburg, Sweden, to study Catalan in Girona. 

A version of this article first appeared in Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. Translation: The Local.

For members


KEY POINTS: Is the EU really planning to double the price of Swedish snus?

Claims over the weekend that the EU planned to bring in a new tax which will nearly double the price of Swedish 'snus' tobacco led to the hashtag #Swexit trending over the weekend. But a commission spokesman stressed on Monday that the story was inaccurate.

KEY POINTS: Is the EU really planning to double the price of Swedish snus?

Where does the claim come from? 

The Aftonbladet newspaper on Sunday ran a story based around a “secret, leaked” proposal from the European Commission for a new excise tax on tobacco which the newspaper claimed would be presented at the start of next month, with discussion then taking place between various EU member states. 

The article does not name a source or quote from or show any parts of the document, but it quotes Patrik Hildingsson, the head of communications at the snus producer Swedish Match, who it says has “received the coming report”. 

What was the reaction? 

The story generated a near viral response on Swedish Twitter. The Sweden Democrats party jumped on the story, with the Twitter account for the party’s EU MEPs tweeting using the hashtag #Swexit, which then started to trend. 

According to Charlie Weimers, one of the Sweden Democrats’ MEPs, the commission is proposing a 12.5 percent increase in tax on cigarettes, a 200 percent increase in taxes on snus, and 500 percent increase in taxes on tobacco-free snus.

In a way, this is unsurprising as snus is used by about 17 percent of people in Sweden. The tobacco product is made by grinding up tobacco with flavourings and other ingredients and placing it in small bags which are pushed under the upper lip. It has been linked to a higher incidence of mouth cancer, but is much less dangerous than smoking. 

Why is snus sensitive for Sweden? 

When Sweden joined the European Union in 1995, it was granted an exemption from the ban on oral tobacco products the European Union had brought in back in 1992. Companies are allowed to manufacture snus in Sweden and sell it to their citizens, but they are not allowed to sell snus in other EU counties.  

Is it true that the European Commission plans to force higher tax on snus? 

Dan Ferrie, a European spokesperson on tax issues, told the EU’s daily press briefing on Monday that the commission’s coming proposals on tobacco taxation would not affect Sweden’s freedom to tax the product. 

“Sweden has had an exemption since it entered the EU when it comes to the sale of snus,” he said. “The proposal that we are working on right now is not going to change that situation because the sale of snus is not permitted outside Sweden. Sweden ill as a result continue to have full freedom to set its own tax rate and tariffs for snus.” 

Already on Sunday, Sweden’s EU commissioner Ylva Johansson said that she had stressed to the commission developing the new proposals the “unreasonable consequences for Swedish snus” if it were to force a higher tax rate. 

“My judgement is that this proposal has not yet been developed to the level where it can be proposed,” she said in an sms to Swedish state TV broadcaster SVT. “Tax questions require unanimity within the Ministerial Council.”