Reciprocity or nothing: Brits in Spain will have rights withdrawn if UK doesn’t give same guarantees to Spaniards

Spain has confirmed that it would revoke the rights of its 366,000 British residents in the event of a harsh Brexit if the UK failed to guarantee the same rights for the 180,000 Spanish people living in Britain.

Reciprocity or nothing: Brits in Spain will have rights withdrawn if UK doesn't give same guarantees to Spaniards
A protester holds a sign during the visit by Steven Barclay. Photo: AFP

“We have told them that our royal decree will ensure everything remains the same in the case of a no-deal Brexit. But for that, reciprocity is necessary. And reciprocity cannot be guaranteed in half-measures – it is either there, or it isn’t,” Spain's EU affairs minister, Luis Marco Aguiriano, told El Pais in an interview following a meeting with Brexit secretary Steven Barclay in Madrid last week.

The statement emphasises one of the key points within a new law drawn up in March in order to guarantee the continued rights of Britons legally resident in Spain if no withdrawal agreement is in place.

READ MORE: Healthcare in Spain after Brexit: What you need to know

The royal decree was passed as an emergency law by Pedro Sanchez’s government in early March and includedthe guarantee that those Britons legally resident in Spain come Brexit day would be offered new permanent residency papers.

At the time, it was announced by Foreign Minister Josep Borrell with the caveat of reciprocity. “It will assure the continued rights of those British living in Spain although it is unilateral measure passed by Spain, we expect that it will be met with reciprocity by the British government.”

The decree came as a huge relief for Brits in Spain promising to extend the rights of British citizens currently resident in Spain, covering issues such as healthcare, driving licences and pensions/social security.

But fears have resurfaced after news that Britain would only guarantee the payment of health costs for UK pensioners living in the EU for the six months following Britain’s exit from the bloc on October 31st without a deal.

Some 365,967  Britons are officially registered as residents in Spain compared to the 180,000 Spaniards who reside in the United Kingdom 

At present no like-for-like guarantee has been made by the British authorities in response to the royal decree but the UK has introduced a process for EU citizens living there to stay in Britain post Brexit and enjoy continued rights.

All of the estimated 3.6 million EU citizens resident in the UK – except citizens of the Irish Republic – must apply for settled status so they can continue living in the country legally once free movement ends with Brexit.

Settled status is eligible to those who have been in the UK for five years and can prove it with the necessary paperwork, while pre-settled status is for anyone else until they have the proof of a five year continuous stay.

Although this settled and pre-settled status scheme guarantees rights for EU residents in UK under certain conditions, it is not considered like-for-like with Spain's measures. 

Spain's royal decree states that if there is no reciprocal agreement within two months then the cabinet can suspend it entirely.


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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.