REMINDER: What the Brexit Deal means for British citizens in Spain

With the news that the Conservatives have won a huge majority in the UK general election with the vow to "get Brexit done", here's a reminder on what might happen next.

REMINDER: What the Brexit Deal means for British citizens in Spain
Photo: DepositPhotos

On Friday morning, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain would leave the European Union on January 31st.

“We will get Brexit done on time by the 31st of January, no ifs, no buts, no maybes,” he said.

And now that he has the majority to push through his EU Withdrawal Bill, Brexit looks unavoidable.

It's been so long in the making that most people have probably forgotten what it actually entails for British people living in Spain.

Boris Johnson in a press conference to celebrate his vistory on Friday morning, Photo: AFP

Although it still needs to be given the green light yet by the British parliament, it's important to remember that the Citizens Rights part of the deal – the 50-odd page section that formed PART TWO of the Withdrawal Agreement agreed by Johnson and Barnier in October – remains unchanged from when it was thrashed out by Theresa May more than a year ago.

The good news is that the transition period, which basically keeps relations between the EU and the UK as they are now will immediately kick in when the UK leaves and run until December 2020, unless it is extended.

So people who want to move to an EU country but have not made the move yet can come here on the same terms as before until the end of December 2020. And Brits who want to move from one EU country to another can also do so as they would have done if they were EU citizens until the end of 2020.


This contrasts with a no-deal scenario when all such rights would have automatically ended on Brexit day if Spain had not brought a contingency plan into law. Known as the Royal Decree on Brexit, Spain pledges to continue the rights for Brits legally resident here as long as reciprocal measures are also introduced for Spaniards resident in Britain. 


Here's a quick recap of what the Brexit deal will mean for British residents in Spain. Worth noting that at the time campaigners from British in Europe described the Withdrawal Agreement as having “more holes than a piece of Emmental” cheese.

  • If you are legally resident in an EU country then you will have the right to stay, albeit you will have to apply to authorities in order to secure this status.
  • The right to stay is not only guaranteed for those already living in the EU on Brexit day, but also those who come to the EU before the end of the transition period, which currently is 31st December 2020. Although there is a chance that the transition period could be extended even further. It was initially intended as a 21-month window in which the UK could organise bilateral deals or with the EU as a whole, but repeated Brexit delays mean it is now just over a year.
  • Under the Withdrawal Agreement Brits will only lose those rights if they spend five continuous years away from the EU country they are living in.
  • The current EU laws on the right of residence will apply meaning Brits in the EU are not obliged to meet any conditions for the first three months of their stay, but after that they must be working or self-employed, self-sufficient or a student. Alternatively they can be a family member of someone who meets these conditions.
  • Aggregation of social security contributions is agreed.
  • After five years of meeting these conditions then you will earn the right to stay permanently. Anyone with less than five years residence under their belts by the end of the transition period will be allowed to stay on under the same conditions until they can claim permanent residency. 
  • Britons in the EU will enjoy the continued right to reciprocal healthcare. So those pensioners who have cover under the S1 scheme or will be eligible for one when they retire will continue to have their healthcare funded by the UK. For British workers in EU countries who pay into the national health scheme then, the rules will remain as they are now. 
  • EHIC health cards will also continue to cover travel across the EU during the transition period. What happens with them afterwards would be part of any future deals between Britain and EU countries.
  • Pensions will be uprated – meaning your UK state pension will be increased annually as it has been for those living in the UK or in the EU up to now and this continues for your lifetime.
  • Disability benefits will also be “exported” as they are now.
  • Frontier workers who live in one country and work in another will have the right to continue to work in each country.
  • Close family members including spouses, civil partners and dependent children will be able to join you living in an EU country if you are legally resident. British in Europe points out that: “This will apply for the whole of your lifetime. If you have children after the effective date they also are protected under the withdrawal agreement if you and the other parent are also protected or a national of the country you live in.”
  • The issue of qualifications being recognised in a country under a Brexit deal is one of the more confusing aspects of the Citizens Rights part of the WA. British in Europe sum it up by saying: “There is some agreement on recognition of professional qualifications – if you have an individual recognition decision re your qualification including through automatic recognition e.g. doctors, architects, your qualification will continue to be recognised but only in the country where the decision was issued.”

Citizens rights group British in Europe said of the deal when Theresa May first agreed it: “It's reasonable to say that for those who are happily settled in their country of residence, work solely in that country, have retired there or are pre-retired, have no wish or need to move to or work or study in another EU country, fulfill all the requirements for exercising treaty rights (see here) and don't rely on professional qualifications, then your rights should be covered.”

But it's not all plain sailing.

  • Residency permits will still have to be applied for if EU countries, as they are expected to do, introduce a “constitutive system”. That means criminal checks will be carried out on applicants as well as checks to make sure they meet the requirements legal residence. That might be a problem if residents don't have the resources to prove they are self-sufficient. Application must be submitted within six months of the end of the transition period (which based on the current end date for the transition period of December 31st 2020 would be June 30th, 2021). And it's only an application, there is no guarantee that all applications will be accepted. After Brexit countries could also adopt a “declaratory system”, meaning Brits won't have to apply for residency permits, but will have a choice whether to do so.
  • Freedom of movement ends once the UK leaves the EU, so as well as affecting people who arrive after the end of the transition period it also means people cannot move between countries. So if you have residency sorted in Germany, you cannot then move to Spain for work – for example – without going through the Spanish immigration process.
  • The right to provide cross-border services as self-employed people.
  • As British in Europe states “Some professional qualifications e.g. lawyers practising under their home titles and EU-wide licences and certificates are not covered, nor is recognition of qualifications outside the country of recognition/residence across the EU 27.”
  • If you hook up with a local while you're living in an EU country don't assume that they will be able to live with you in the UK after the end of the transition period, even if you are married.

And of course all this depends on the UK managing to settle the thorny issue of the Irish border, then Boris Johnson convincing MPs to back the deal he has negotiated.

Eurocitizens, an association formed by a group of UK citizens living, working and studying in Spain,  produced these charts to help outline options for those concerned about their rights. 

The most important thing to do ahead of the UK exiting the European Union is making sure that you are correctly registered as a resident in Spain. 




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For members


Why Spain’s new citizenship law is running into problems

Spain's 'Grandchildren's Law' made hundreds of thousands of people around the world eligible for Spanish citizenship, but now it's running into a few problems and drawing criticism.

Why Spain’s new citizenship law is running into problems

Spain’s Democratic Memory Law passed the Spanish Senate on October 5th 2022 and officially became law on October 21st. The wide-ranging legislation is an update to the 2007 law passed by the Zapatero government and aims to “settle Spanish democracy’s debt to its past” and deal with the legacy of its Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship.

It includes, among many other things, the establishment of a DNA register to help families identify the remains of the tens of thousands of Spaniards who were buried in unmarked graves; the repurposing of the Valley of the Fallen mausoleum, where Francisco Franco was buried until his exhumation in 2019; and a ban on groups that glorify the Franco regime.

READ ALSO: Spain’s lawmakers pass bill honouring Franco-era victims

Another part of the legislation includes the Ley de Nietos, ‘Grandchildren’s Law’ in English, which allows for descendants of Spaniards who fled Spain during the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship to claim Spanish citizenship without ever having lived there.

It is an extension of the law that also made citizenship available to the descendants of International Brigade (IB) fighters who fought during the Civil War.

READ ALSO: Descendants of International Brigades can get fast-track Spanish nationality

But whereas this was more of a symbolic gesture and there are, according to the Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales (AABI), only around 100 IB descendants eligible and still alive, according to estimates as many as 700,000 people, the majority in Latin America, could be eligible for Spanish citizenship through the Ley de Nietos.


This presents a whole different administrative operation and now it seems that the law has run into some problems, particularly when applications are being done abroad, with the sheer number of applicants meaning that procedures have been ‘relaxed’.

This, in turn, has led to concerns that there might have been possible document falsification.

The surge for citizenship in South America, termed “massive nationalisations” in the Spanish press, has led to alleged ‘procedural relaxation” that could “open the door to a lawsuit for alleged prevarication and false documentation” and even “provoke a question of unconstitutionality,” according to la Asociación por la Reconciliación y la Verdad Histórica, a group that has been opposed to Historical Memory legislation since the original law back in 2007.

The association, which has called for the suspension of the Democratic Memory before a Madrid court, has warned of “serious doubts about the legality of the mass and express nationalisation process” the law has created.

Doubts about the process have also been raised by the General Council of Spanish Citizenship Abroad (CGCEE).

Potential applicants can apply via the Civil Registry at the Spanish Consulate in their home country and need several documents to not only prove the Spanish nationality of their ancestor, but also to prove their descendent was exiled. 

For those applying for citizenship via a grandparent, it will also be necessary to provide the birth certificate of the father or mother that corresponds to the family line with Spanish blood.

However, there are fears that the alleged relaxing of the rules in consulates in South American countries means that some applicants may have been able to falsify documents or continue with their application without satisfying all of the criteria.

Political exile?

Another issue the application of the law has experienced is defining what exactly ‘political exile’ means.

According to the Democratic Memory Law, victims of Francoism and those eligible are vaguely defined as “anyone who suffered physical, moral or psychological damage, economic damage or the loss of fundamental rights”. 

Yet there seems to be some confusion about what exactly is required to qualify for Spanish citizenship through being a descendant of a political exile. Though the text of the law is vague, doubts have been raised as to whether consulates in Latin America have been accepting, or assuming, that all Spanish emigres who travelled to the Americas during the dictatorship were political exiles.

La Asociación por la Reconciliación y la Verdad Histórica has pointed out that “the eighth provision of the Law of Memory… only gives the right to nationality to the children and grandchildren of political, ideological, belief or sexual orientation exiles, but not to economic exiles, who are not in any way in any of the aforementioned circumstances”. 

Proving exile status

There are millions of people around the world with Spanish heritage, particularly in Latin America. That’s why the law, in theory, requires proof that descendants left Spain in the face of persecution and were exiled, and that they left Spain between January 1st, 1956 and December 28th, 1978. In order to prove this, applicants need to provide one of the following:

  • Documentation proving that they or the descendant have been a beneficiary of the pensions granted by the Spanish state.
  • Documentation from the United Nations International Refugee Office and the Refugee Offices of the host States that assisted Spanish refugees and their families.
  • Certifications or reports issued by political parties, unions or any other entity or institution (whether public or private), recognised by the Spanish state or the host state of the exiles and their descendants that are related to exile or political persecution. 

Deadline extension

Spain’s Director General of Consular Affairs, Xavier Martí, has tried to soothe some of the concerns of the CGCEE and other groups about the process abroad, and how exactly the law should be applied in terms of obtaining Spanish citizenship.

Owing to both the confusion and the sheer number of applications, the deadline has been extended: “when for justified reasons, alleged by the applicant or assessed directly by the person in charge [of the application] and there are certain circumstances that make it difficult to obtain the required documentation, the deadline may be extended,” the department said.

Who is eligible for the grandchildren’s law?

Who is eligible for Spanish citizenship under the new law? There are a number of groups included.

  • Children or grandchildren born outside Spain to a Spanish father, mother, grandfather, or grandmother who was exiled and left Spain due to ‘physical, moral or psychological damage, economic damage or the loss of fundamental rights’, or renounced their Spanish nationality. 
  • People born outside Spain to Spanish women who lost their nationality by marrying foreigners before the 1978 Constitution was established.
  • The adult sons and daughters of Spaniards who gained nationality due to the 2007 Democratic Memory law.