April 13. 2024. 5:58

The Daily

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Post-pandemic digital nomads march on in Europe

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a seismic shift in how we work, with millions of Europeans switching to working from home. But after restrictions were lifted, many were reluctant to return to the office.

Realising they can work from anywhere, millions of people have chosen to replace their dreary commute with the beaches of southern Europe, quaint Balkan cities, or the snowy slopes of Bulgaria’s Pirin Mountains.

As some employers now expect workers to actually turn up at the office, what has happened to the teleworking trend and which countries are seeking to capitalise on Europe’s digital nomads?

According to data from Eurofound, some 41.7 million employees teleworked across the EU in 2021, twice that of 2019. While numbers decreased slightly in 2022, the trend is set to climb again due to technical advancements and employers’ preferences toward remote working.

The report found it is becoming increasingly clear that this new world of work needs new regulatory frameworks, taking into consideration existing legislation and social partners’ agreements.

Ivalio Kalfin, the executive director of Eurofound, told EURACTIV that teleworking is here to stay but that working conditions need to be taken into account.

“Governments should not only support the social partners but also spare a thought for these professions where teleworking is not possible and where working conditions should be additionally improved to address the labour shortages.”

There is currently no EU-wide legislation to harmonise standards on remote working or protections for workers, but Kalfin said negotiations are underway, and a positive result is expected by the summer.

Statista found that Europe leads the way globally by granting the highest number of digital nomad visas, predominantly to third-country nationals such as Americans, Brits, Russians and Canadians. Currently, visas from 19 countries are available across Europe.

Out of those who call themselves digital nomads, almost 60% have worked remotely just in the last two years, since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Digital nomad visas in Europe

Dutch citizen Andrina Sol was forced to shut her travel business when COVID-19 struck in 2021, and she started helping students write their thesis online as their university classes shifted online and libraries shuttered.

“Unintentionally, I suddenly had an online business and worked from home. I missed travelling a lot, and when I had the opportunity, I went to Albania. To enjoy nature and the freedom….I decided to come to Albania for three months last year in March. No need for a visa as I am an EU citizen.”

After falling in love with the Balkan country, Sol decided to apply for the newly rolled-out Digital Nomad Visa, which would allow her to stay longer than three months.

This required opening a local bank account and depositing €2500, providing a rental agreement, and contractual evidence of working with clients.

Denisa Kaca, a consultant who helps foreign citizens apply for residence, said there had been a significant increase in numbers since the pandemic “after several changes in other countries regarding entry and residence”.

“Crowds of them came to Albania. What attracts them is the low cost and Americans being able to live here for one year visa-free. It is also the nomadic word of mouth spreading online. It is becoming on the map,” she told EURACTIV.

But Albania is not the only country that has seen an increase in digital nomads post-pandemic.

In 2021, Krakow, Poland, was rated one of the best cities in Europe for digital nomads due to its fast internet speeds and cheap co-working costs. Other cities to make the top 10 included Lodz, Poznan and Warsaw.

“I decided to move to Warsaw last summer because I heard many positive opinions from other digital nomads about that city,” Denisa from Bucharest told EURACTIV.

She explained the advantages of living in Warsaw include good public transport links, cultural sites, good shopping, a well-developed food delivery system. Downsides include the rising cost of living, including rent and food.

Bulgaria is also trying to attract digital nomads, but there is no specific visa or incentive scheme in place for now. It is also not known how many live in the country, but there is a organisation of remote workers in the ski resort of Bansko in the Pirin Mountains.

Bansko is a lively ski centre in the winter but a quiet and almost sleepy town in the summer, with a population of 9,000. Digital nomad Matthias Zeitler, 46, from Munich, settled in Bansko six years ago and founded “Co-working space Bansko” and the Bansko Nomad Festival, which was visited by 550 people from all over the world last autumn.

But digital nomads flock to other parts of Bulgaria, including Sofia, Plovdiv and Burgas, attracted by low prices, beautiful nature, and an income tax rate of just 10%.

Southern Europe leads the way

Italy introduced legislation in 2022 to allow “highly qualified” non-EU workers who work remotely to live in the country. Requirements include acquiring a year-long entry visa and comprehensive health insurance.

There are no exact figures on how many digital nomads are in Italy, but the Italian Association of Digital Nomads reported at least 2,200 in March 2022.

Most respondents said they want to hop between small towns and villages rather than urban areas, staying for 1-3 months on average.

“The time has come for Italy to become the favourite destination of digital nomads”, Andrea Cafà, president of the business association Cifa Italia, told EURACTIV Italy.

Across the Adriatic, Croatia was the second EU country to launch a digital nomad scheme, with a new category of digital nomads being introduced in January 2021.

The scheme applies to third-country nationals and is valid for up to 12 months with some possibility to extend within six months of expiry. Digital nomads are essentially treated as long-term tourists and are exempt from income taxes but also from all other rights reserved for residents, such as public health insurance.

Between January and June 2021, under 50 digital nomads registered for the scheme, but this increased with 597 living in the country as of January 2023. Two-thirds are Russians (209) and Ukrainians (203), followed by American (67) and British (27) nationals. In January, there were 142 new applications, indicating the trend shows no signs of abating.

Burak, a digital nomad in Greece, told EURACTIV he was “looking for a destination to escape from everything” and thought he had “discovered the hidden gem of the Mediterranean” where professionals like him can “have a better work/life balance with affordable prices while enjoying the comforts and rights the EU has to offer,” as well as a good climate, food, and warm hospitality.

The Athens Municipality has its own campaign, “This is Athens”, to attract digital nomads and promote the city. Furthermore, the government has taken steps to make it easier for digital nomads to get registered with the digital nomad visa, start a company online and take care of accounting, although on the ground, a few kinks in the system remain.

In Malta, the 2001-launched Nomad Residence Permit allows holders to work for a foreign company while legally residing there. It is open to third-county citizens for a renewable period of one year.

Residency Malta Agency CEO Charles Mizzi said in 2022 that “if there are any lessons learnt from the pandemic, it’s that people are willing to move more than ever before. Early to recognise the signs, Residency Malta has launched this new permit that allows digital nomads to come to Malta and work here”.

Applicants must earn more than €2,700 a month and have an employment contract or a contract for freelance services, rental agreements and health insurance. The main draws for digital nomads include year-round sunshine, a thriving tech and finance community, and zero tax paid locally.

In Spain, as of the end of 2022, digital nomads can live in the country for a year, extendable for two years, while enjoying a 15% tax rate rather than the typical 24%.

The government expects that the new law will allow Spain to grow and advance in technological matters while simultaneously evolving and increasing the number of co-working and co-living spaces.

Other countries that offer similar residence programmes include Czechia, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, and Romania.

Each programme has different requirements but typically requires between €2,000 and €5,000 income per month, full health insurance, and proof of residence such as a rental contract.

While EU countries are keen to capitalise on the influx of foreign teleworkers, Eurofound is clear that an EU-wide regulation is needed to ensure protection for workers and a level playing field as the numbers of teleworkers and digital nomads will continue to increase.

“Telework is here to stay, in a permanent or occasional form,” Kalfin said.

While this is good news for governments, who are keen to bring in more cash to their economies, particularly from well-paid foreign professionals, those on the ground have their concerns about other impacts.

“A lot of foreigners will squeeze the locals out of their homes and towns. It drives local prices up and results in higher living costs for the locals. It could also compensate brain drain that Albania is experiencing,” Kaca said, adding, “but there needs to be some planning and programmes to maximise this positive impact.”

Many hope that any forthcoming legislation at an EU or national level will not just protect remote workers but also the communities they become a part of.