OPINION: How Spain treats Britons over Brexit is in the hands of the UK

While there have been warm words and encouraging promises from Spain towards Britons in the country, the reality is their futures depend on the UK government and people have lost faith in it, says Sue Wilson from the Bremain in Spain campaign group.

OPINION: How Spain treats Britons over Brexit is in the hands of the UK
Anti-Brexit demonstration outside Parliament in London. Photo: AFP

How many times, over the last 31 months, have Brits living in the EU been told not to worry? As frequently, I imagine, as EU citizens in the UK have heard the same words.

Since the start of the negotiations in March 2017, our rights as citizens were one of three priorities up for negotiation. It was going to be easy, apparently, as nothing was going to change, and our lives would not be affected.

We might have believed it at the time, as the EU seemed keen to preserve the status quo. Brexit would not undermine our rights in any way, shape or form.

The initial offer from the EU provided reassurance. That is, until the Department for Exiting the European Union became involved. Prime Minister Theresa May rejected the EU’s initial offer and came back with her own inferior counter-offer. Not only that: May acted as if she were making the first offer!

It comes as no surprise, after viewing May’s time at the Home Office, that her driving ambition was to reduce immigration numbers. Having set an impossibly low target of tens of thousands of EU immigrants, May immediately starting taking rights and freedoms off the table for EU citizens. Naturally, the EU responded by removing rights from the table for British citizens in the EU.

Campaign groups, such as British in Europe, of which Bremain in Spain is a founding member, and the 3Million, have worked tirelessly to protect citizens’ rights. Despite their best efforts, the Withdrawal Agreement sees our rights downgraded and leaves important gaps, causing much anxiety. These include the loss of freedom of movement and the failure to recognise professional qualifications.

READ ALSO Brexit: Why have British citizens in the EU been left to fight for their own rights?

For many, the rights secured in the Withdrawal Agreement, such as healthcare and pensions, provided relief from the ongoing Brexit nightmare. However, that relief was always tempered with the constant ringing in our ears of May’s “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. Also, while May’s deal might have been agreed with the EU, there’s still no agreement with the UK parliament, or any sign of an agreement on the horizon.

A recent worry for many Brits in Spain is the increased threat of the UK leaving the EU with no deal. What are the implications on our supposedly agreed rights and freedoms? I still believe, as I did back in September, (see my article: “Why I'm not scared of a no-deal Brexit) that a ‘no deal’ scenario cannot and will not happen. However, that doesn’t stop others from experiencing many sleepless nights over that worrying possibility. Nor is the situation helped by the failure, on both sides of the negotiating table, to respond to campaigners’ demands to ‘ring-fence’ our rights.

With, I believe, the best of intentions, the British government has tried to keep us informed and alleviate our fears, as has the British Embassy in Madrid. However, their published updates are frequently contradicted by the latest news stories, often fuelling further confusion and concern.

Consolation has recently come from the Spanish government, with its promises to guarantee healthcare for all residents, regardless of their nationality. While we trust that the Spanish government genuinely wants to make us feel welcome and protected, its promises come with a proviso – i.e. British citizens will receive fair treatment if Spanish citizens in the UK are treated the same way.

Having witnessed the treatment of EU citizens by May and her government, many people have lost any faith they had in the UK authorities. The fact is, our treatment by the Spanish authorities is really in the hands of UK government, which rather takes the shine off it.

Further promises have recently come from regional government – for example from the President of the Valencian Community, Ximo Puig – who has promised healthcare to all British citizens in his community.

READ MORE: Valencia region pledges free healthcare for Brits post-Brexit

However, we are unable to enjoy any good news for long, before the political rollercoaster heads off the rails once more. Adding to Brexit turmoil, there’s going to be a snap election in Spain in April. With the best will in the world, the Spanish authorities will have other concerns on their minds, taking attention away from our rights and Brexit-related issues.

Since that fateful day in June 2016, only one way has existed to guarantee the protection of all our existing rights and freedoms, and that’s to stop Brexit. Any other option will see our rights and freedoms diminished – not what we signed up to when we moved to Spain in good faith – fully expecting that the freedoms we enjoy would last a lifetime.

I don’t possess a crystal ball, more’s the pity, but I do have a strong constitution and a positive outlook. I have a wonderful life (Brexit excepted!) in an amazingly beautiful, hospitable, diverse and special country. That’s why I and Bremain in Spain are working so hard to protect the lives we enjoy here.

Sorry to tell you Spain, but Brexit or no Brexit, you’re not getting me out of here anytime soon – or any time at all, for that matter!

This is my home. Hands off my life!

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain, a member of the British in Europe coalition.

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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.