Brits in Spain see glimmer of hope in UK Brexit vote drubbing

On the sun-drenched eastern coast of Spain where British pensioners and business-owners are uncertain for their futures as Brexit ticks closer, the crushing parliamentary defeat of Theresa May's EU divorce deal has sparked a glimmer of hope.

Brits in Spain see glimmer of hope in UK Brexit vote drubbing
Spanish nurse and anti-Brexit campaigner Joan Pons Laplana poses during a protest outside parliament. Photo: AFP

“This might not happen,” Lyle Starritt told AFP, the day after May suffered a historic drubbing in the House of Commons on Tuesday, when MPs rejected the deal she struck with the European Union.

Britons interviewed by AFP, all of whom were keen on Britain staying in the EU, also said they were confident that even if Brexit takes place Madrid would preserve their rights, providing London reciprocates for Spaniards living in Britain.

READ MORE: How Spain reacted to Brexit deal defeat

Starritt, who runs an estate agency just a stone's throw away from the wide, palm tree-lined beach in the coastal town of Javea, said that many British expats had been gripped by a “sense of gloom” after the 2016 referendum to leave the bloc.

Spain is the number one destination for British nationals living outside Britain, far ahead of France and Ireland. These include retirees aged over 65 who have made the country their permanent home.

With no deal yet agreed for the terms of Britain's exit from the EU at the end of March, many expats are concerned about freedom of movement, pensions and healthcare. 

But Starritt, 58, said the collapse of May's deal had given people some confidence that the entire Brexit process could be halted.      

“There is a sense of possible optimism that we're going to get out of this,” he told AFP, echoing comments by other expats AFP spoke to. 

Avoiding 'mass exodus'

Britain's House of Commons lower house voted 432 to 202 against May's plan for Brexit on Tuesday, the biggest government defeat in modern British history.   

The defeat has raised the spectre of a doomsday no-deal exit from the EU.   

But many shrugged off this fear, hopeful that it could open the way for a second referendum — even though many Britons in Spain were excluded from the last vote because of rules barring those who had lived abroad for long periods.

“It's not a concern of mine because I have never believed… that no-deal is possible,” said Sue Wilson, chairwoman of the Bremain in Spain group that campaigns against Brexit. 

OPINION: Why I'm not scared of a 'no deal' Brexit

Britons now account for some 29 percent of Javea's 27,000-strong population, according to Scottish pensioner George Thomas, head of the local branch of the Spanish Socialist party.

He said authorities in the Valencia region were “aware of the importance to the economy of all the resident Brits”.   

“It would be disastrous if there were conditions imposed that led to a mass exodus,” the 77-year-old said, standing just feet away from the beachfront Chabada bar where mainly English-speaking elderly customers were eating breakfast.

“So many Brits live here, spending their pension, running businesses.”   

Still he has applied for a Spanish passport, just in case.

Not as nervous as before

Starritt, who has been in Spain for two decades and runs a real estate agency and a property maintenance firm in Javea, is from northern Ireland and has applied for an Irish passport.

Ten years ago, around 80 percent of his customers were British but last year, he sold just two properties to British people buying with pounds, he says. Other nationalities have made up some of the shortfall.

“We will probably stay flat in relation to British buyers for a long time to come” if Brexit happens, he says.

“If Brexit doesn't happen, there will be an upsurge.”   

Officially, just under 241,000 Britons are registered as residing in Spain, but many have not signed up officially and it is estimated up to 800,000 live in the country.

Among the younger Britons who work “the big concern is freedom of movement,” says Wilson.

“If you live in Spain, you wouldn't have that freedom to go live or work in France or Germany.”

For retirees there is uncertainty over the payment of their pensions, which currently rise every year for those living in EU countries.    

Around 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Javea lies the resort of Benidorm, a town of high-rises where pubs and English ads for mobility scooters for the elderly abound.

Steve Young, a 66-year-old British pensioner, has stopped off at Kazal's Bar after a round of golf.

The former industrial refrigeration engineer has lived in the nearby town of El Campello since 2015 and said several of his golfing friends voted to leave the EU.

He is cautiously optimistic after May's defeat.   “I feel a little bit nervous but I'm not as worried as I was,” he said outside the bar, where a sign advertises karaoke.

“The Spanish government seems to think that the British people in Spain have something to offer.”

By AFP's Marianne Barriaux

READ ALSO: Brits in EU demand to be spared from Brexit 'train crash' after May's deal rejected

OPINION: Why I'm not scared of a 'no deal' Brexit – The Local


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.