Spain’s ‘Little Britain’ braces for Brexit: Dispatch from Orihuela Costa

On the sun-drenched eastern coast of Spain, British retirees, workers and small business owners are braced for an uncertain future after Britain leaves the European Union on Friday.

Spain's 'Little Britain' braces for Brexit: Dispatch from Orihuela Costa
File photo of Brits sunbathing in Orihuela Costa. Photo: AFP

“It is worrying what happens now,” said Karen Watling, 73, who moved to the Orihuela Costa in Alicante province with her husband after she retired from her teaching job in central England 17 years ago.

Like many other British retirees in the region, dubbed “Little Britain” because of its huge British population, she is relieved that Britons already living legally in Spain have been guaranteed access to the country's public healthcare system after Brexit.   

But she worries Brexit will hurt the British economy and further erode the value of the pound, which has slumped since Britain voted in June 2016 to leave the European Union, cutting her pension once it is converted to euros.

“We have really lost a fair bit of money over the past three years and that could get better, that could get worse. We really don't know,” said Watling, adding that many Brits in the area were already eating out less because of the
weaker pound.   

She and her husband are also concerned about declining property values in the region, in part due to lower demand from British buyers because of the weaker pound and Brexit uncertainty.

The couple sold their home in the UK to buy their three-bedroom house with a swimming pool in Orihuela Costa and now “have nowhere to go back to” if life became unviable in Spain.

“If we sold here we would probably not get anywhere near what we paid for this house,” Watling said, echoing the concern of other British retirees interviewed by AFP in the region.


Falling property sales

Spain is home to around 370,000 Britons — more than any other EU country. Many are pensioners, drawn by Spain's warmer climate and much cheaper cost of living.

Orihuela Costa, a sprawl of dozens of large housing estates with low-rise pastel-coloured buildings about 110 kilometres (70 miles) down the Costa Blanca from the resort of Benidorm, is one of the largest British enclaves in

Britons account for around 8,000 of its population of some 28,000, according to municipal statistics.

Supermarkets stock British staples such as baked beans, news agents only sell British newspapers and pubs with names like “The Randy Leprechaun” and “The Celtic Drop” line its well-kept streets.

But after Brexit, Britons will no longer have the automatic right to set up home in Spain and business owners in Orihuela Costa fear fewer British pensioners will move to the area.   

“All of my clients are Brits, if less come over, that is a worry,” said Gemma Cobbett, 36, who runs a beauty shop in the Playa Flamenca area of Orihuela Costa.

There were 2,193 home sales involving British buyers in the third quarter of 2019, the lowest level since the third quarter of 2014, according to the latest figures from the country's association of land registrars.

The British, however, still remain by far the biggest group of foreign buyers.

'Shrinking opportunities'

Mark Stucklin, the head of Spanish Property Insight, a property information website, said he was “really surprised” how well British demand had stood up since the referendum.

“I thought it would be absolutely decimated,” he said.   

The loss of freedom of movement is the main concern for the numerous young Brits who work in the bars, estate agents and other businesses in Orihuela Costa.

“I am still young. I had thought of going to Greece at some point but that seems more complicated now,” said Mike Watkins, a 26-year-old bartender from Leicester, central England, as he sunbathed on the beach before starting his shift at a pub.

“I feel like I have less opportunities now than I did before,” he added.   

Some Britons though shrugged off Brexit concerns, arguing it was in both Madrid and London's interests to ensure British pensioners stayed in Spain.   

“If life out here for expats like myself got more difficult and we decided to go home, that would devastate the Spanish economy,” said Malcolm Cavendish, a 76-year-old retired butcher who moved to Orihuela Costa nearly 17 years ago and who voted for Brexit.   

“And it would make a mess of things back in the UK because the UK couldn't cope.”

By AFP's Daniel Silva

Member comments

  1. If the “expats” decided to go home it would ‘devastate’ the Spanish economy?! Lol!

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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.