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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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For members

SPAIN AND THE UK

Liz Truss: What does the new UK PM mean for Brits in Spain?

Following the announcement that Liz Truss will replace Boris Johnson as the UK’s new Prime Minister, political correspondent Conor Faulkner analyses what this could mean for Brexit and the 400,000 UK nationals who reside in Spain.

Liz Truss: What does the new UK PM mean for Brits in Spain?

On Monday September 5th, it was announced that members of UK’s Conservative party had finally elected a new leader and thus a new Prime Minister, after Boris Johnson was forced to resign at the start of the summer.

Beating rival Rishi Sunak with 57 percent of the vote, just 80,000 Conservative party members elected the former Foreign Secretary as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.

READ ALSO: ‘Iron weathercock’ – Europe reacts to Liz Truss becoming new UK PM

But what, if anything, does her election mean for Brexit and the 400,000 Britons living in Spain? 

Will she be a continuity politician or will she forge a new path (for better or worse) in British-European relations?

Truss the Remainer

During the 2016 EU referendum campaign, Liz Truss campaigned for Remain. “I don’t want my daughters to live in a world where they have to apply for a visa to work in Europe,” she famously said.

Having once been a member of the Liberal Democrats and decidedly more pro-European, Truss’s conversion to Euroscepticism came after she had voted Remain in the EU in the June 2016 referendum.

Did the much hallowed Brexit benefits become clear to her in the aftermath of the result? Possibly. Or, as Brexit became a litmus test of loyalty and Conservatism, did her position shift to fit the intra-party politics of her party?

Although one may hope that her former pro-European positions might mean a softening in UK-EU relations in the post-Johnson era, Truss’s dependence on the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative parliamentary party during her leadership campaign suggests she may be kneecapped in her ability to strike compromises with the EU.

Truss the Foreign Secretary

Owing to Truss’s tendency to be a bit of a political flip-flopper and change her positions at the whim of career progression, it is therefore quite difficult to predict her future behaviour with regards to Spain. We can, however, make some educated guesses based on her time as Foreign Secretary.

Going off her tenure in the Foreign Office, it seems Truss may view relations with Spain more positively than perhaps with other EU member states or the block as a whole.

In December 2021, Truss travelled to Madrid to meet with her then counterpart José Manuel Albares to build “closer economic, tech and security ties” with Spain, and to “support” the 400,000 Britons living in Spain. 

“We’re significant trading partners, with the UK as Spain’s biggest European investor,” she said, “and the UK as the top destination for Spanish investment. By boosting our trading ties even further, both Spain and every region and nation of the UK will benefit.”

Yet, Truss has also strongly hinted that she would be willing to overhaul Article 16 and put the Northern Ireland protocol at risk. If she is willing to jeopardise peace and potentially break international law to appease her political base in England, particularly within her own parliamentary party, one must wonder about the seriousness with which a few hundred thousand Brits up and down Spain’s costas will be taken. 

Reaction in Spain

Spain’s leading newspaper El País believes Truss will continue the populist strategy of Johnson. Truss was, even in her acceptance speech on Monday, loyal to her predecessor. 

She “promises citizens a rose-tinted future, without clarifying how she intends to achieve it”, the paper believes.

Sue Wilson, Chair of Bremain in Spain, told The Local that she expects Truss to “carry on with the policies of Johnson, and be led, presumably, by the same right-wing forces of the Conservative Party.

“I suspect that, as far as what affects British citizens in Spain, that continuity will simply mean we remain invisible and left to our own devices,” Wilson added.

“Britons in Spain have been left in bureaucratic limbo since the Brexit vote six years ago. Whether it be the ongoing confusion over driving licenses or renewing residency or getting new TIE cards, many Britons abroad have felt abandoned by the UK government.”

Wilson and other members of Bremain in Spain will take part in the National Rejoin March in London on Saturday September 10th to “deliver a warning to the new PM about the impact of Brexit on the spiralling cost of living crisis in the UK”,  to express a “clear and loud message” that “Brexit has failed” and to promote “Rejoin the EU” as a “mainstream” call to action.

“For six years now, Brits living in Europe have been dealing with fear, uncertainty and stress, thanks to Brexit. We have already lost important rights, and many are concerned that even those secured could be at risk. Truss plans to proceed with the Protocol Bill which threatens the legally binding international treaty that secured those limited rights. In the process, she seems determined to do further damage to UK/EU relations and our international reputation.”

Anne Hernández, head of Brexpats in Spain, told The Local Spain: “Our problem as Brits in Spain might be if she actually applies Article 16, meaning a no deal Brexit, and she has threatened that. Although I’m not sure how that might affect our rights.”

The overriding feeling among UK nationals in Spain about Truss in No. 10 is the feeling of trepidation that Hernández describes.

With its fourth leader in six years and the third to take the helm of Britain in the post-Brexit world, for Brits abroad Truss’ rise to Downing Street has prolonged that uncertainty. 

With her apparent willingness to simply tear up internationally binding agreements, many will worry if the situation in Spain will be taken back to square one.

One would hope that her previously positive interactions with the Spanish state could mean that she lends a hand in resolving some of these lingering administrative issues affecting Britons in Spain, but the propensity to change her politics when it suits her make this unpredictable, and her reliance on Eurosceptic forces within her party make it unlikely.

How about Gibraltar?

This unpredictability could be of particular concern for UK nationals in Gibraltar. After voting Remain by a whopping 96 percent, the tiny British territory was not included in the main Brexit deal that came into effect from January 2021, and complicated multilateral negotiations between Gibraltar, London, Madrid and Brussels have rumbled on without resolution. 

Truss’ rhetoric on Gibraltar during her tenure as Foreign Secretary was as combative as her anti-EU talking points during the Tory leadership campaign, continuing the us-against-them language: “We will continue to defend the sovereignty of Gibraltar.”

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