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BREXIT: Is it true Britons are leaving Spain ‘in droves’ as UK tabloids claim?

If you've scanned some of the UK’s tabloid newspapers in recent weeks you would be forgiven for thinking that there’s a mass exodus of Britons from Spain. The Local finds out what is really happening on the Spanish 'costas'.

man on balcony in the city of malaga in southern spain
Has Brexit influenced British property owners’ decision to sell up at all? Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP

Reports have claimed thousands of Britons – particularly retirees – are leaving the popular destinations of the Costa Blanca and Costa Del Sol because of Brexit complications, but is it really true?

Has Brexit changed people’s lives to such an extent that they’re packing up and leaving? Are Brits selling up and returning to the UK? 

This would certainly buck a trend which has seen Brits flocking to Spain for decades. The great quality of life, sunny weather, slow pace of life and affordable house prices have helped make it a dream holiday home location for many Brits, with the latest Spanish government estimates suggesting 800,000 to 1 million Britons own a property in Spain.

In addition to the holidaymakers are 381,448 Britons resident in Spain, according to Spain’s Migration Agency. Andalucia, which includes Malaga and the Costa del Sol, is home to the largest number of Brits, which makes up almost 30 percent of the total.

The Valencian Community, where the Costa Blanca is located, comes in second with 27 percent of the total.  In the province of Alicante alone there are over 85,000 Brits.

The British have long been the biggest home buyers in Spain, and this trend continued into the 1Q of 2021, despite both Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, there was a fall in new purchases in 2Q to just 9.5 percent of the total foreign purchases – a record low – with the Germans a close second on 9 percent, according to data from the Colegio de Registradores (Spains Property Registry).

It seems if anything Covid-19 has had more of an effect on property purchases in Spain than Brexit. 

According to Alicante province real estate group Provia, Britons bought over 600 properties between April and June of this year, half the pre-COVID figure, but are still the largest group of foreign buyers in the area. 

But while a drop in purchases may mean less Britons are relocating to Spain it does not mean those already here are fleeing.

People drink in a bar in Benalmadena Spain
Spain has more Britons officially registered as residents than it did before Brexit. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP 

According to estate agents on the Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol that spoke to The Local, there has been no uptick in sales – something that would indicate an exodus. 

“We haven’t noticed an important effect one way or the other,” Giselle from Bromley Estates Marbella explained. 

“We haven’t had a mass influx of people wanting to list their properties to sell.”

Another agent from Engel Voeker Benidorm said the situation was similar on the Costa Blanca. 

“There’s not a lot of people from England selling their homes,” she told The Local, adding that the situation was largely “the same as before Brexit and Covid.”

Giselle agreed: “The British are still buying, the British are still selling …there’s no mass exodus.”

So where did these tabloid headlines come from?

According to several agents, those that are selling their properties in Spain aren’t doing so for Brexit-related reasons. 

Ingrid from GA Homefinders in the Gran Alacant area of Alicante province said many of the Britons selling would have done so anyway regardless of Brexit.

“They’d have been selling anyway, but for different reasons,” she says. “I don’t see people leaving the country.” If there is any Brexit effect on the Spanish property market, it is not to drastically alter it but to simply speed it up: these people “would have sold anyway maybe two or three years later,” Ingrid says, but because of Brexit “they may as well do it now.”

Many of these are retirees who arrived in the early 2000s – then in their 60s- and are now at an age where they want or need to be closer to home. “You get a little bit older,” Ingrid says, “you need to see the doctor more, and you want to do that in your own language.”

These older property sellers aside, it seems the reality on the Spanish costas isn’t as simple as a Brexit inspired exodus. 

In fact, for some on the Costa del Sol the new Brexit regulations are having the opposite effect: “Some British are looking to buy because if they own a property they can get a visa,” Giselle says.

Under new Spanish rules, owning a property over a certain value can make you eligible for residency, the so-called golden visa.

All agents who spoke to The Local were certain that Brits will continue to come to the Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol. COVID-19 travel restrictions may have slowed new property purchases, and there are some older Britons returning home after many happy years abroad, but Spain will always be a popular destination for both British holidaymakers and retirees.

“Everybody’s been waiting for the Brexit effect,” Giselle says, but for now, there doesn’t seem to have been a particularly unusual one on the Spanish property market, and there’s no mass exodus of Britons as reported in the UK.

So has Brexit really influenced British property owners’ decision to sell up?

The Local Spain’s previous article “What worries British second home owners in Spain most about Brexit” suggests there are a number of Brexit-related reasons these property owners could put their homes on the market, from higher taxes as non-EU residents to the 90-day rule and residency dilemmas. 

Whether these concerns have actually convinced many Britons to officially part ways with Spain doesn’t seem to be the case thus far.

Head of Bremain in Spain and MBE Sue Wilson told The Local: “I have personally been approached many times to provide examples of those returning to the UK, even by Spanish TV. The answer has always been the same – despite having put out a call to Bremain in Spain’s 6000+ members, I have been hard pressed to find anyone that fits the bill.

“Rather, our members have reported back that the traffic of Brits migrating, across various parts of Spain, has been in the other direction.

“It’s true that there are examples of British second-home owners selling up now they can no longer spend as much of the winter as they would like in the EU, thanks to the 90-day rule.

“But these people were never Spanish residents, even though, in many cases, they should have been. In truth, whether you support the new post-Brexit arrangements or not, they have forced us all to evaluate where we call home. For many of us – not least thanks to the UK becoming unrecognisable to us – that is most definitely Spain.”

Article by Conor Patrick Faulkner

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Anger grows as no solution found yet for in limbo UK drivers in Spain 

British drivers living in Spain are becoming increasingly disgruntled at the lack of solutions two weeks after they were told their UK licences were no longer valid, with the latest update from the UK Embassy suggesting it could still take "weeks" to reach a deal. 

Anger grows as no solution found yet for in limbo UK drivers in Spain 

There is growing discontent among UK licence holders residing in Spain who are currently in limbo, unable to drive in Spain until they either get a Spanish driving licence or a deal is finally reached between Spanish and UK authorities for the mutual exchange of licences post-Brexit.

Since May 1st 2022, drivers who’ve been residents in Spain for more than six months and who weren’t able to exchange their UK licences for Spanish ones cannot drive in Spain.

There are no official stats on how many Britons of the 407,000 UK nationals who are residents in Spain in 2022 are affected; according to the UK Embassy the “majority exchanged” as advised.

But judging by the amount of negative comments the last two updates from the British Embassy in Madrid have received, hundreds if not thousands are stuck without being able to drive in Spain.  

May 12th’s video message by Ambassador Hugh Elliott left many unhappy with the fact that the forecast for a possible licence exchange agreement will be in the “coming weeks”, when two weeks earlier Elliott had spoken of “rapidly accelerating talks”. 

Dozens of angry responses spoke of the “shocking” and “absolutely ridiculous” holdup in negotiations that have been ongoing for more than at least a year and a half, and which the UK Embassy has put down to the fact that Spain is asking the British government to give them access to DVLA driver data such as road offences, something “not requested by other EU Member States”.

Numerous Britons have explained the setbacks not being able to drive in Spain are causing them, from losing their independence to struggling to go to work, the hospital or the supermarket, especially those in rural areas with little public transport.  

“I know personally from all the messages you’ve sent in, just how incredibly disruptive all of this is for many of you,” Elliott said in response. 

“If you are struggling to get around you may find additional advice or support from your local town hall, or charities or community groups in your area and the Support in Spain website is another very useful source of organisations that can provide general support to residents.

“And if your inability to drive is putting you in a very vulnerable situation, you can always contact your nearest consulate for advice.”

There continue to be disparaging opinions in the British community in Spain over whether any pity should be felt for UK licence holders stuck without driving, as many argue they had enough time to register intent to exchange their licences, whilst others clarify that their particular set of circumstances, such as arriving after the December 2020 ‘intent to exchange’ deadline, made this impossible. 

OPINION: Not all Brits in Spain who didn’t exchange UK driving licences are at fault

So is there any light at the end of the tunnel for drivers whose UK licences aren’t valid anymore in Spain or soon won’t be?

“The agreement we’re working towards now will enable UK licence holders, whenever they arrived in Spain or arrive in the future, to exchange their UK licence for a Spanish one without needing to take a practical or a theory test,” Elliott said on Thursday May 12th of the deal they are “fully committed” to achieve.

READ ALSO: How much does it cost to get a Spanish driving licence?

And yet it’s hard for anyone to rest their hopes on this necessarily happening – sooner or later or ever – in part because the embassy advice for those with UK licences for whom it’s imperative to continue driving in Spain is that they should take steps to get their Spanish licence now, while acknowledging that in some places there are “long delays for lessons” and getting your Spanish licence “doesn’t happen overnight”.

READ ALSO: What now for UK licence holders in Spain?