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.
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.
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.