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EUROPEAN UNION

Visas to qualifications: How foreign residents in Europe can get help with paperwork problems

Foreign nationals living across Europe regularly have to overcome hurdles with paperwork and red tape whether it's with residency or work permits or having professional qualifications recognised. But there is help at hand that many may not know about.

Visas to qualifications: How foreign residents in Europe can get help with paperwork problems
There is help for those individuals and companies who have paperwork problems in the EU. Photo by Romain Dancre on Unsplash

What is SOLVIT and what kind of problems can it help you solve?

Although the general principle is ‘freedom of movement’, people going to live to another country of the European Union, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein can have all sort of problems setting up.

These can include the transfer of a car bought in another EU country, the swapping of a driving license, the application for a non-EU spouse visa, and the procedure to set up a company. The good news is that help is available.

SOLVIT is a name few people are likely to have heard, despite having been around for 20 years.

It is a free online service to help individuals and businesses resolve problems they experience with administrations in the countries of the European single market, where people, goods, services and capital can move freely.

What sort of problems?

Created by the European Commission in 2002, the network of SOLVIT centres can help with anything related to European single market’s rights.

The single market countries have common rules to avoid technical, legal and bureaucratic barriers to free movement. But sometimes national, regional or local authorities do not apply these rules as intended causing problems to the people who depend on them.

It can be daunting to try and solve these issues across borders, even more so when another language is involved. In these cases, people can resort to SOLVIT centres to seek help.

How does it work?

Complaints can be submitted on the SOLVIT web page, which also provides the contact details of SOLVIT centres in all countries.

The central office (home centre) will check whether the problem falls within the SOLVIT’s remit, prepare the case and send it to the SOLVIT team (the lead centre) in the country where the problem has occurred, who will try to find a solution with the responsible authority.

The objective is to complete the procedure in 10 weeks from when the case is accepted by the lead centre. But according to a report by the European Commission less than 50 per cent of cases now meets that target, partly because of stretched resources in the face of growing demand.

Gerard de Graaf, the head of the EU Office in San Francisco, previously head of the team that created SOLVIT, wrote in the 20th anniversary report: “In 2001, it was clear that citizens and small businesses in particular needed hands-on help to overcome incorrect application of EU rules by national and local authorities.

“We had contact points in each member state but few problems ever got resolved and it was disheartening. We had the idea to set up instead problem-solving centres, connected via an internet-based, multilingual network… I still vividly remember the first cases going through the new system in 2002, and, even more so, the positive feedback we received: “I can finally reunite with my husband and children…”

In 20 years, the network has dealt with close to 29,000 cases. Only in 2021, 5,231 complaints were filed to the SOLVIT service (2,455 accepted) compared with 155 in the first year of operation.

How are countries doing?

The caseload varies between countries. In 2020 France handled the largest number of complaints, with 157 submitted by individuals and companies and 435 received from other Solvit centres. Germany followed with 131 cases lodged by individuals and companies and 214 received from other Solvit centres, Italy with 146 and 270 respectively, and Spain with 133 and 196.

Austria also had a relatively large number of cases, with 32 submitted complaints and 102 received. Sweden had 39 submitted and received 60, Denmark 51 and 22, and Norway 11 and 30.

Some of the common problems, the European Commission reports, were the recognition of professional qualifications, visa and residence rights, driving licences, pension rights and access to healthcare.

In 2020 difficulties included delays in exchanging information related to social security, as well as problems accessing healthcare and claiming unemployment benefits linked to COVID-19. Some of the problems in France were related to the social security reimbursement of medicine sold by parallel traders.

In terms of recognition of professional qualifications, there were difficulties for nurses who acquired part of their training in a non-EU country, for social paedagogical educators in Italy and for speech therapists in France.

Complaints about Sweden were related to the inclusion in the population register and the issuance of a personal identification number, unjustified delays to admit EU workers to the national social security system and to issue residence cards to their non-EU family members. This was reported also in Austria.

Several countries, including Norway, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Germany, applied unjustified conditions and refused short-term visas for non-EU family members of EU citizens.

If you need to submit a complaint via Solvit in the country where you are then click here for the details of how and where to submit it.

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BREXIT

Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don’t want to return home

The majority of Britons who live in the EU, Norway, Iceland or Switzerland and are protected under the Brexit agreement feel European and intend to remain in Europe permanently, but many have concerns about travel problems, a new survey reveals.

Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don't want to return home

The research also shows that problems exist and “travel is where most issues relating to the new status currently occur”. For instance, border officials are still stamping passports of UK citizens with residence rights under the EU UK withdrawal agreement, even though they shouldn’t.

“There is constant confusion around passport stamping. I was ‘stamped in’ to France on a short trip… but could not find anyway to be ‘stamped out’ again. I think I can only spend 90 days in other EU countries, but have no idea how anyone can check or enforce that – until someone decides to try. It’s a mess,” was one of the answers left in an open question.

“Every time I go through a Schengen border control, I need to provide both my passport and Aufenthaltstitel card [resident permit in Germany] and watch to check that they don’t stamp my passport. As I am currently travelling a lot that’s been 20-odd times this year…” another respondent said.

The survey was carried out by Professor Tanja Bueltmann, historian of migration and diaspora at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, between October and November 2022. About 1,139 UK citizens replied.

Of these, 80 per cent found acquiring their new status easy or very easy, 60.7 per cent feel their rights are secure, while 39.3 per cent have concerns about their status going forward.

Staying permanently

More than three quarters (76.6 per cent) of respondents said they plan to live permanently in the EU or the other countries of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. In fact, 65.7 per cent said that Brexit has increased the likelihood of this choice.

For some, the decision is linked to the difficulty to bring non-British family members to the UK under new, stricter immigration rules.

“My German wife and I decided we no longer wanted to live in UK post Brexit referendum. In particular, we were affected by the impact of immigration law […] We cannot now return to UK on retirement as I cannot sponsor her on my pension. We knew it was a one-way journey. Fortunately, I could revive an application for German citizenship,” was a testimony.

“My husband is a US citizen and getting him a visa for the UK was near impossible due to my low income as a freelance journalist. We realized under EU law, moving to an EU country was easier. We settled on Austria as we had both lived there before… we could speak some German, and we like the mountains,” said another respondent.

Professor Bueltmann noted that the loss of free movement rights in the EU could be a factor too in the decision of many to stay where they are.

Citizenship and representation

Among those who decided to stay, 38.2 per cent are either applying or planning to apply for a citizenship and 28.6 per cent are thinking about it.

A key finding of the research, Bueltmann said, is that the vast majority of British citizens do not feel politically represented. Some 60 per cent of respondents said they feel unrepresented and another 30 per cent not well represented.

Another issue is that less than half (47.5 per cent) trust the government of their country of residence, while a larger proportion (62 per cent) trust the European Union. Almost all (95.6 per cent) said they do not trust the UK government.

Feeling European

The survey highlights the Brexit impacts on people’s identity too. 82.6 per cent of respondents said they see themselves as European, a higher proportion than those identifying as British (68.9 per cent).

“Brexit has really left me unsure of what my identity is. I don’t feel British, and I certainly don’t identify with the mindset of a lot of British people who live there. Yet, I am not Danish either. So, I don’t really know anymore!” said one of the participants in the survey.

Professor Bueltmann said the survey “demonstrates that Brexit impacts continue to evolve: this didn’t just stop because the transition period was over or a deadline for an application had been reached. Consequently, Brexit continues to shape the lives and experiences of British citizens in the EU/EEA and Switzerland in substantial, sometimes life-altering, ways.”

Considering the results of the study, Professor Bueltmann recommends policy makers in the EU and the UK to address the issue of lack of representation, for instance creating a joint UK-EU citizens’ stakeholder forum.

The report also recommends the UK government to rebuild trust with British citizens in the EU introducing voting rights for life and changing immigration rules to allow British-European families to return more easily. 

This article was prepared in cooperation with Europe Street News.

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