Founder and CEO of Free Trade Europa Glen Hodgson – born and bred in the North-East, but now living in Stockholm – talks about the Swedish take on the coronavirus crisis and their views on Brexit

THERE is a saying that home is the starting point for love, hope and dreams. It is also probably normal to dwell longer on these topics during times of uncertainty and crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly brought its fair share of both, and it is interesting to compare and contrast the reaction to the Coronavirus in my native England to that of my adopted home of Sweden.

From there to here

I was born in Aldbrough St. John, North Yorkshire then moved to Darlington as a toddler. The North-East - along with a loving family and friends - gave me a solid base and here I realised that life's possibilities are endless. To an outsider, I was brought up in the middle of nowhere; to me, it was my own little slice of heaven. Forty-four years later, no matter where I live or travel, it still is.

After attending Abbey Road and Hummersknott schools, I went to the Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College and then university in England, France and Belgium. By this time I had already decided three things. Firstly that sometimes you can't wait for your ship to come in: you have to swim for it. Secondly that you should be polite, positive and do your best at everything you attempt. Thirdly that it is a big world out there and I wanted to see and experience a bit of it.

After working for the European institutions and a trade association in Brussels, I was employed by an international communications agency when I got the opportunity to lead operations in the Nordics, Baltics and Central and Eastern Europe. Given that my wife is Swedish, Stockholm made a logical choice for relocation, despite the weather and the taxes.

Different approaches to Covid-19

Having lived in Sweden for almost a decade now, the Covid-19 crisis - and Sweden’s reactions to it - reveals a lot about the country and the people. While Brits can barely leave the house except to stand behind their trolley in Tesco’s or Morrison’s car park, waiting for the opportunity to buy food and essentials, life in the country that brought us Abba, Volvo and Spotify is relatively unchanged. The reason for this difference in approach is fourfold.

Firstly, Swedes have a great deal of trust in public authorities, which means that the majority of the population stick firmly to voluntary guidelines. Furthermore, whether they are respecting speed limits, paying taxes or following social distancing guidelines, Swedes like to follow the rules. Additionally, more than half of Swedish households are made up of one person, which cuts the risk of the virus spreading within families. Fourthly, the object is to create the “herd immunity” that Boris Johnson was keen on pursuing before a controversial study from Imperial College London set the UK on a different track. The aim is to ensure that the healthcare system can cope, while allowing the virus to spread through the population gradually and avoid a second or third wave of infections in the autumn.

For these reasons, lockdowns have not been necessary in Sweden. Care home deaths aside, the strategy has been pretty successful too. The focus in Sweden is on staying at home if you are sick or elderly, washing your hands regularly, and avoiding any non-essential travel, as well as working from home. Meanwhile schools, bars, gyms and restaurants remain open although public gatherings are limited to 50 people and there is no talk of lifting restrictions anytime soon.

Brexit is a divisive topic

Brexit is another issue which still regularly comes up in conversation in Sweden. Although strongly supported in the North-East, this has been received with great sadness and some bitterness in Stockholm. Swedes like the English and follow our sport, music and fashion as well as seeing England as an important trading partner. Swedes feel that they have lost a like-minded and respected ally now that the UK has left the European Union. It remains to be seen what the future relationship between Sweden and the UK will look like, but the sense in this part of Scandinavia is that the whole process is an unnecessary and self-inflicted waste of time, effort and money.

I personally wanted the UK to remain within the EU and lead from the front on shaping trade, environment, industry, technology and social policy in Europe. It was for this reason that I founded the think-do tank Free Trade Europa in order to promote these topics and foster cooperation between Britain and our Nordic and Northern European neighbours. Furthermore, British diplomats, officials and company representatives were always well-thought-of and very effective in defining and setting policy in Brussels. At the same time, I believe in democracy and accept that my fellow Northerners - as well as the rest of the country - have clearly chosen a different path.

My love, hope and dreams therefore remain with the North-East, and I will endeavour to support the region towards future pride, progress and prosperity as an advocate and - hopefully - an ambassador. This would be a suitable “thank you” to my home, family and all the people who helped me, supported me and offered me advice along the way.

  • Free Trade Europa focuses on promoting free trade, liberalisation and the rule of law within the European Union and internationally. Founder Glen Hodgson is a respected commentator on European affairs, as well as a frequent presenter, moderator and panellist at European policy events.