OPINION: How Brexit is delivering unpleasant surprises for Brits in Spain

Already a week into the New Year, Sue Wilson considers that aside from the large-scale losses brought by Brexit - freedom to live and work across the EU - it's the smaller losses that are now causing concern.

OPINION: How Brexit is delivering unpleasant surprises for Brits in Spain
Photo: AFP

Last week, as we bid goodbye to the worst year most of us could remember, we dared to hope that 2021 would be better. After all, it could hardly be any worse. Just one week in and our resolve is certainly being tested with plenty of fresh concerns to cause us stress.

Thankfully, with the ongoing Spanish Covid situation, we have reasons to be hopeful. Although cases and death rates remain a concern, they are falling, and compliance with government rules is generally high. By contrast, the UK continues to break records for the number of new cases daily, and that’s before the impact of Christmas mingling is assessed.

International travel has been problematic throughout the Covid crisis. For Brits, it has recently become even worse. This week, we have seen British nationals denied entry to Spain and other European countries, as border control officials questioned whether the travellers were valid EU residents with essential travel needs. Hopefully, with the swift intervention of Spanish authorities and the British Embassy, the problem has largely been resolved.

Many Brits in Spain are still struggling to get their affairs in order, and the lack of appointments for residencia and driving licence applications is contributing to stress levels. Add to that the continuing uncertainties surrounding Brexit, and it’s no surprise that we are still reeling.

Even after Brexit is supposedly all over, much remains unresolved, leaving room for unpleasant surprises. Although an oversimplified generalisation, it would be fair to say that those that voted to remain are less surprised than those that voted to leave. Many leave voters were expecting – indeed, were promised – that nothing would change. They were misled that our rights, freedoms and benefits would remain the same, regardless of Britain’s EU membership status.

With the Withdrawal Agreement agreed a year ago, it was clear that some things were going to change for the worse. However, the scale of change was unclear to many. Aside from the large-scale losses – such as our freedom to live, work or study in any EU country – the smaller losses are now causing concern.

With our travel prospects limited, we won’t immediately be aware of all the ways our lives will change. It is too soon to say how the sterling/euro exchange rate might be affected long-term. The pound is worth about the same today as it was a month ago, even despite a Brexit deal being agreed. Seems the markets didn’t think it was that good a deal after all.

This week, we witnessed the anger and surprise of Brits in Spain when they discovered they could no longer stream UK television. As I don’t stream UK TV, this was not even on my radar. Others complained that they can no longer use Amazon Prime UK, but that’s an easy problem to resolve – just use Amazon Prime Spain instead, and immerse yourself in Spanish TV, movies, culture and language.

Another shock was the news that EU companies must register for VAT if they wish to sell to UK customers, and collect monies on behalf of the British government. Although this change was clearly intended to reduce bureaucracy at UK borders, it has proved effective in an unexpected way. Many European companies are questioning whether it’s worth selling to the UK at all.

The difficulties with products crossing borders are manifold, as people trying to order goods from the UK have realised. According to a recent tweet, a parcel ordered in Ireland for €12.96 cost over €54 to enter the UK, because of postage charges and more than 35 euros of “import fees”.

It’s not just physical products: I’ve seen reports of people incurring additional fees when transferring funds from the UK, as well as problems with sending parcels across the border in either direction. Presumably, we are seeing teething troubles that will resolve themselves in time, but I suspect the extra charges may be here to stay.

Whether Brexit changes upset you will largely depend on two factors. Firstly, do they affect you personally? If you don’t have pets, the increased complexities and expense of pet transportation won’t be high on your priority list. Don’t travel much? Then mobile roaming charges won’t really bother you.

Secondly, your acceptance of Brexit changes may depend on whether you thought Brexit was a good idea in the first place. If you voted for Brexit and are happy with the results, the inconvenience is a small price to pay. If you voted Remain, it is lose-lose all the way. Perhaps you voted for Brexit but are now starting to appreciate the real picture and cost. I’m afraid you are just going to have to learn to live with it, like the rest of us.

Welcome to 2021; welcome to Brexit reality.

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain


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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.