It’s early summer morning. I’m 15 years old. I and my mum are standing in a long crowded queue outside of the embassy of Finland in Moscow. The consulate reception is not opened yet, but the queue is already impressive. Tourists, businessmen, travel agents. Our case is somewhat different - a couple of months ago I was picked as an exchange student to be sent to a foreign country, together with another dude from our college. We’re not from Moscow. We’re from Cherepovets - a small town the size of Helsinki, famous for the density of local factories and purple clouds around the industrial area.
Cherepovets is considered the largest town in the region, and in my first 15 years of life I never been to Moscow. Up to that point, Cherepovets was my biggest town, cultural centre and the place to be. The general path of a career in Cherepovets consisted of finishing the school, getting into a professional school, maybe local university, doing a summer internship at one of the factories, and eventually working for the next 40 years there. Your freedom was largely represented by the variety of factories. You were free to pick from a chemical factory, matchstick factory, ship factory, dairy product factory. Despite that, you would likely and inevitably end up working for a metallurgical conglomerate, one of the largest in the country. In fact, the college I ended up after the school also belonged to that corporation and was in practice an incubator for the skilled people going straight to metal production.
There was a student exchange program however with a small town in Finland. Most of the towns in Finland are small. This one was especially tiny, with around 20k people, far up north, next to the gulf of Bothnia. What made is special is that also had a metal production plant, a professional school and a university.
Let’s recapture for a second. I’m a 15 years old dude from Cherepovets. I need to get to Finland. How hard can this be?
Normally you’d get your passport at the age of 16. You can apply earlier, but you’d need a special reasoning for that. I think it took me about few weeks to get that done.
Passport for travelling
In Soviet Russia, no one needed to travel abroad, since everything was perfect in the place of your residence. If you did need to travel, that would require you a bunch of paperwork, recommendations from you place of work or study, release papers from the army, background checks by the KGB and lots of questioning. This has changed slightly after the USSR was gone, and a new era was begun. Slightly, but not hugely. You would still need to apply for a special passport that would have your name written in latin letters, and be valid for foreign visas.
And of course, you would need to have your “main” passport done first.
It took an impressive pile of paperwork and about a month (I think) to get the travel passport done.
Because I needed a student visa valid for a year, I had to travel personally to the consulate of Finland in Moscow. I should mention that if you’re a lucky resident of Saint-Petersburg, you would also find a local consulate in your town. Everyone else had to travel to Moscow. I mean, I was lucky to live in the European part of the country, just a train day away.
It also wasn’t really well organised at the consulate. No appointments, a live queue outside of the fence, then getting through the security inside of the consulate and queueing to the bulletproof reception windows. Most of us were also hastily filling up the long forms and glueing profile photos. Another impressive pile of papers, forms for myself and the second dude who was also picked to be exchanged. Finally, we’re told to wait for a month, call and check on the status. After the decision is done you’d have to come down again (just a day on a train away) and pick up the passports.
We got visas 2 months later and an extra slice of bureaucracy from Finnish consulate - one of the papers was missing and they delayed the answer for an extra month, up to the point when we already needed to go.
All in all, 4 months of paperwork, and you were good to go.
Sometimes I feel like people don’t appreciate the freedom of movement. This is largely concentrated around people who have always had it. It’s one of those things that feel essential while you have it, but you are shocked once it is taken away.
As far as I know, freedom of movement implemented in the EU is unique and only experience, that no other union or country has done. At least not on the same scale. Can you consider the United States as a bunch of different countries? A bit, maybe. But culture wise Europe is an amazingly diverse package, bundled with a million of different languages, foods and traditions. Yet somehow there’s an agreement to let everyone (within the Union) travel and work freely, anywhere you want.
With zero paperwork.
I remember my first time crossing the border of Finland and Sweden. We were driving in a car. It was forest, then more forest, then a bridge across the river. And a sign saying “Welcome to Sweden”. No delays, no paperwork, no one guarding the border with a barbed wire. I was shocked.
At this point, you want to be a part of this amazing thing. You want to be part of the EU, contribute, and make it even better. You make it the purpose of your life. Because this is one of the most amazing things humanity has ever achieved. Instead of fighting each other - give everyone freedom to live anywhere you want, to be anything you want. Free medicine, free education, social support for everyone in the union, doesn’t matter which language you’re speaking. That’s something that inspires you.
This is humanity at its best.
A very special cookie
First few countries you visit while living in Finland are most likely to be Sweden, Norway and Estonia. This is when you learn that Norway is not in the EU, but somehow the border between Finland and Norway looks exactly the same, as between Sweden and Finland. No one is guarding it, and if you miss the “Welcome to Norway” sign, you might later notice that speed limits have changed, as did colours of the road signs. This is when you start learning about the special status of the Norway. In addition to the EU, there is the Schengen agreement. You might not be an EU citizen, just a tourist (or a student) - but you’re still going to enjoy a good portion of the same freedom of movement as the EU citizens do. Yes, you will not be able to work in another country, but you will be able to freely visit almost all of them. And more - as in the case of Norway, which is not even a part of the EU.
As you progress in your travels and reach the farthest reaches, you are likely to encounter an ancient island of Britain. This will be another eye-opening discovery - despite the UK being part of the EU, they will not let you in with a Finnish visa. The reason being that the UK was never a part of the Schengen agreement, hence you have to apply for another visa. The UK visa. Unless you are a proper EU citizen, in which case you can freely come and go as you please.
My first visit to the UK was in 2009. I’ve filled 36 pages long form - this achievement still holds my personal record for being the longest form I’ve ever filled in my life. Paid 90 euros of processing fees. Arranged an appointment at the UK consulate in Helsinki. Gave up my fingerprints and retina scan. All of this only to find out that they are unable to process my request. The reason being that I was planning to travel in April, while my Finnish visa was expiring in May. According to The Rules, a visa from the origin country must be valid for at least 2 months after my visit to the UK is concluded. I guess the UK was secretly afraid I’d illegally stay on the island.
Now let’s combine the bureaucracy of one country with the bureaucracy of another.
The Finnish visa that was about to expire was, in fact, 3 years long visa. After that, I could apply for a permanent residentship (doesn’t equal citizenship, completely different topic). However, because I had to renew it before full 3 years of that visa would expire, I couldn’t apply for the permanent visa just yet. At that point, Finland gave me 4 years long visa, and I could finally apply for a UK tourist visa.
I’m sorry for the amount of the details, but I really want you to feel the absurdity of the whole system.
The problem is, it doesn’t feel absurd at all, as long as you don’t think about it. This is the way we’ve arranged our travels for a past couple of hundreds of years (we all know that before that you’d simply gallop into another country on a horse while swinging your sword).
London was a nice place in 2009, but somewhat unattractive in terms of interesting software related jobs. And back at home Nokia was still dominating the world - although some signs of the decay were coming through. The most talented software people in Finland would likely be employed by Nokia at a time, and then maybe poached by one of the Silicon Valley -based companies. Fast forward 5 years and everything has changed. Nokia is no more, and London somehow managed to turn things around and became one of the most attractive places to work in the software industry. I also got my EU citizenship and could finally exercise proper 100% pure freedom of movement. You would think that the story ends here with a nice happy ending. That’s a big fat nope.
While I was living in Finland I got married to a girl from Russia. She got Finnish residentship (~6 months of processing and 150 euros in fees). Then we moved to the UK. She got the UK residentship (~6 months of processing with both her and my passports taken by the Home Office). Unlike Finnish residentship, UK residentship sucks at freedom of movement - it is simply not appreciated anywhere beyond the UK borders. Not even in the Commonwealth Countries (a term you learn after moving here). UK residentship allows you to stay in the UK, and that’s about it. If you’d like to travel to the EU, you have to apply for a visa.
I did quite a bit of research on this topic. Technically there is an EU law that allows family members of the EU citizen to travel without a visa. However, people tend to agree that explaining this to a Ryanair employee might not get you on a flight. So, let’s be honest, the law doesn’t work and you need a visa.
Things get more interesting at this point. You can apply for a normal tourist visa (~£60 fee), or a family member visa (£0 fee). You will still have to fill in a lengthy form of a country you want to visit, attach profile pictures (£10), proof of address (free, but you have to order it at least 2 weeks in advance) and marriage certificate (phone call to Finnish magistrate, 27 euros of fees and 2 weeks of delivery). Family member visa only allows you to travel together with your “more entitled” family member. Same-sex partners are ok. If you want to travel alone, you would still have to apply for a normal tourist visa.
Once again you’ve probably noticed how quickly things became complicated. Let’s for a moment compare this to a scenario when you have a residence of a Schengen area country. You want to visit another EU country - you jump on a flight and go.
My wife could eventually get a UK citizenship (7 years of residence, £1200 in fees), and we could both enjoy a freedom of movement. However, Brexit happened. The UK is aiming at the Norway special cookie case. Considering that the UK already was a special cookie within the EU, that makes them a very special cookie. However, it’s not going to be exactly a Norway case, since Norway is a part of Schengen area. Freedom of movement is something the UK residents wants to limit by all cost. This obviously cuts both ways, but sometimes you have to get what you really want. From the freedom of movement perspective, UK citizenship gets massively devalued. You’ll get to stay in the UK, but is it something you really, really want? Home Office is inflating immigration fees and tightening rules, Brexit campaigners want immigration to stop completely and get all the foreigners out. And let’s be honest, the best way to do that is to ruin the country and make it complete unattractive on a global scale.
After living in a few countries you start to view the world from a different perspective. It’s a hugely diverse world, but it should be open for everyone. Freedom of movement should be universal. It is likely not to happen on a global scale anytime soon. But somehow the EU made it work on a significant part of the planet. This is an incredibly huge achievement.
Implementing freedom of movement is considered hard and is opposed by many people. But it transcends us as a humanity. This is when you start thinking about the planet as a whole, and not just about your personal lawn. And we are having global problems on our hands - like the ever heating planet that might as well destroy all of us tomorrow, despite the residence statuses or saving accounts. Should we maybe grow up a bit, develop a sense of empathy and maybe just a tiny bit of tolerance for each other?
And, eventually, cancel all the paperwork.