‘Embarassed to be British’: Why this Brit in Spain is on the brink of his own personal Brexit

For years, he criss-crossed the globe almost weekly, travelling on a British passport without a second thought, raising funds for international non-profit organisations and working for the likes of Elton John and Nelson Mandela.

'Embarassed to be British': Why this Brit in Spain is on the brink of his own personal Brexit
Briton Daryl Upsall pictured at his office in Madrid. Photo: AFP

But when Britain voted to leave the European Union, something changed inside Daryl Upsall, a 59-year-old businessman who has spent decades living and working in Europe.   

As Britain formally leaves the block on Friday, Upsall is also on the brink of his own “Brexit” — giving up his British citizenship to become Spanish.   

It's an interesting twist for someone who grew up in the English town of Boston, known today as Britain's Brexit capital after 75 percent of its residents voted leave during the 2016 referendum.

“I was always very international but also very involved in politics in the UK,” said Upsall who spent a decade in London working for the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, writing speeches for Labour leader Neil Kinnock and raising funds for Elton + John's AIDS charity and Nelson Mandela's African National Congress.

He left in 1993 and after seven years with Greenpeace in Amsterdam, he moved to Madrid setting up a string of companies serving the non-profit sector.

But he never once thought about becoming Spanish.   

“I had all the rights to live, work here — my son and my wife are Spanish, all the companies are Spanish, and Britain was European, so thinking about Spanish nationality didn't really occur to me,” he said.

“Then Brexit came along.”

A passport that works

There are around 370,000 Britons registered in Spain, the largest community in Europe. But few have opted for citizenship given the requirement to relinquish their British nationality.

Since Brexit, that has changed with justice ministry figures showing applications rising from 33 in 2016 to 335 last year.


For Upsall, the decision was about keeping his European identity while avoiding the travelling uncertainties created by Brexit.   

“If I travel to China or India, where you need a visa.. as a European, it takes a week. But who knows where things are in (the different countries') negotiations with the UK — is it going to be a week or two weeks? I travel every week to a different country.”   

A long and complex process, becoming Spanish is not for the fainthearted, involving a demanding study of hundreds of potential questions on Spanish history, culture and politics, from Nobel Prize winners to the colours of
regional flags.   

“It became a parlour game for us — we'd have people for dinner and I'd ask them when Spain's war of independence finished.. We literally never found a Spanish person who could pass it without having studied,” Upsall said.

Prospective applicants much also take a language exam involving an oral test and a three-hour written paper. Only those who pass both tests are allowed to apply.

'Embarrassed to be British'

“I reached a point about 18 months ago when I actually became embarrassed to be British,” Upsall admitted.

“I'm ashamed my country took that decision and muddled its useless way through it.”   

But the idea of renouncing his British nationality didn't go down well back home, particularly with his mother who like most in their town had voted to leave.

“When I told my mother, she burst into tears. She said: You can't do it. And I said: You're the Daily Mail reader that voted for all of this, it's the consequence of your actions.”

Barely a year into a three-year process, becoming Spanish is still some way off. But when he has to give up being British, he will.   

“It will be a sad moment,” he reflects. “Kind of the end of an era.”

By AFP's Hazel Ward


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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.