OPINION: The Brexit media coverage of British immigrants in Spain reinforces hated stereotypes

The UK media is finally starting to listen to the plight of Britons in Spain, but their desire to stick to tired stereotypes is preventing the real story of the impact of Brexit on people's lives from being told, says campaigner Sue Wilson.

OPINION: The Brexit media coverage of British immigrants in Spain reinforces hated stereotypes
A recent Channel 4 report on Britons in Spain was criticized by campaigners for reinforcing old stereotypes. Photo: Screengrab Channel 4.

Throughout the entire Brexit debacle, a common complaint from Brits living in Spain is that we’re not being seen or heard.

Despite the UK government claiming that citizens’ rights would be its “number one priority” in the Brexit negotiations, we haven’t seen much evidence of this happening.

Citizens’ rights groups have worked tirelessly to protect our interests but have received limited engagement with the UK government. Unsurprisingly, many Brits in Spain feel that they’re invisible, and that their concerns are considered irrelevant.

Until recently, the UK media has taken little interest in our plight. When interest has been shown, we haven’t always been happy with the results.

Whether it’s the terminology used, the locations and candidates chosen for interviews, or the oft-repeated accompanying photographs sourced from media image libraries, most press coverage has reinforced the stereotypes so hated by most.

Let’s start with the “e” word – most of the Brits I know hate to be called “expats”.

READ ALSO: Expats or immigrants in Spain: What's the difference?

The term comes with such negative connotations. It implies that we are different: better than other immigrants (foreign ones, that is!), simply because we’re British and, therefore, superior to everyone else.

Please call us what we are – immigrants, migrants – and don’t differentiate us from EU citizens living in the UK. We’re all in the same boat, although our crew is friendlier and the weather milder here.

Another media depiction I find annoying and inaccurate is that we’re all pensioners living the life of Riley on a ‘costa’, sipping gin and tonic on a sun-kissed beach.

Well, I confess I am a pensioner and I do live on a ‘costa’, so in that respect, I am a stereotype, but I hate gin and haven’t been on a beach in three years!

Only 25 percent of Brits in Spain are of retirement age and many people in this demographic live on low incomes, relying solely on their British state pensions.

Of course, many do live in coastal areas – just as they live inland, in the countryside, and in towns and cities. The younger, working, majority of Brits in Spain are equally geographically dispersed.

As chair of Bremain in Spain, I’m frequently asked by the media to find interview candidates for various articles and broadcasts.

I always encourage journalists to avoid the British enclaves where Spanish is barely uttered, and the most popular meal is a full English breakfast.

I beg them not to film at the local bowls, golf or bridge club, and to avoid raiding Getty Images and other image banks for the eponymous shot of a British bar festooned in Union Jacks (invariably the same bar in Benidorm!).

I plead with them to extend their interview remit beyond pensioners and to document the concerns of young families, business owners and students. I suggest they try filming in a big city or, perhaps, venture inland and see a different side of how British people live in this amazingly diverse country.

Sometimes, they listen to my advice and the journalists are empathetic.

However, their editors usually have a set agenda that’s hard to shift. In the end, most journalists book a flying visit and have limited time to spend on their story.

Hence, they want to visit a large, touristy resort with lots of Brits milling about, so they can interview numerous people in the shortest time frame possible, then head back to the nearest airport.

The good news is that British citizens living, working and retiring in Spain are receiving more media coverage in the UK – and in Europe – than at any previous time since the 2016 referendum.

We haven’t escaped the unwelcome terminology or locations, but it’s starting to look like the media is listening to our voices, and sharing them with the public.

Finally, a request to any film crews who are planning to visit Spain: please talk to your boss and explain that the most interesting case histories are obtained by going ‘off-piste’.

If, however, you’re filming in the UK, you could, perhaps, suggest carrying out street interviews in a few Remain-voting constituencies for a change. If you think I’m wound up by being called an “expat”, don’t even get me started about the endless, one-sided interviews with Leavers, in Spain and in the UK…

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain


Member comments

  1. Well said Sue! It’s such a shame that this stereotype of British immigrants living in Spain continues to be portrayed in this way. So many of us moved to Spain with the intention of learning the language and experiencing the culture and integrating into the Spanish way of life as much as possible. Of course there are thousands who just come for the sun, sea and sangría and never learn how to say more than half a dozen words of Spanish but they are not the majority and it’s a shame that they are shown as such. I’ve lived in Spain for almost 36 years and lived and worked among the local population and have probably only ever been inside a British bar, half a dozen times during that time. I can speak Spanish to a fairly high standard and prefer to eat and drink in local establishments where I always feel comfortable and at ease. Most of my friends here are the same and we do get really fed up with seeing the news on TV or a newspaper photo showing typical photos of boozy British ex-pats sitting outside a British bar!

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Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.