Not all the British in Spain are retirees, and many are confused and angry by the limited information about Brexit available from both the British and Spanish governments. Many now question where they belong, writes Karen O’Reilly (Loughborough University).
Many British people living in Spain have been left confused, fearful and in the dark about their post-Brexit future, having received inadequate information and support from both the Spanish and UK governments. This is partly because UK nationals in the country are still largely caricatured as retirees and “residential tourists”, despite this being a highly inaccurate picture of the contemporary British migrant experience in Spain. With between 300,000 and a million British people living at least some of the year in Spain, the uncertainties of Brexit have created an urgent need for a more nuanced understanding of the complexity and diversity of Britons’ living, working and family arrangements in Spain.
Brexit and the British in Spain, which summarises the key findings of extensive, longitudinal empirical research conducted from 2017-20 with UK nationals living in Spain.
Britons in Spain are confused and fearful about the post-Brexit future
Our participants have spent three years feeling confused and fearful, having often received inadequate or misleading information (although information has become clearer over time). The Withdrawal Agreement ensures that UK citizens who have exercised their treaty rights and are ‘legally resident’ in the EU27 will be able to stay, and outlines the terms that will guide this. Many of our participants are securing their futures by getting registered, as advised. But this is not straightforward and many are falling through loopholes. Even now, in 2020, people are still confused about regulations, unsure where to go for advice, and sometimes given misleading advice. This is partly because many people have complex family and living arrangements that are difficult to resolve with simple regulations, meaning that the implications of Brexit on their lives are not well understood. One expert interviewee who has become an informal adviser to migrant Britons told me:
I had a message this morning on Facebook Messenger, similar to ones that I am getting now a couple of times a day, it doesn’t sound much but it builds up, so ten a week or so. The message is basically, this morning’s was a woman who is here as a grandmother, her daughter came over with her as a small child, so British born in the UK, married or is living with a Canarian, and has a child here who is British but who was born of a Canarian father in Tenerife and is now studying in the UK doing a degree. And she wants to know what’s going to happen to her granddaughter, are they going to let her back in? The father is Canarian, she was born in Tenerife but she is British, are they going to let her back in? Are they going to let her finish her degree in the UK? People are scared.
The Withdrawal Agreement has also left several important issues unresolved, notably the question of continued freedom of movement within the European Union, the case of posted workers and diverse other complex individual circumstances.
Although there is a campaign under way to change this, under current Spanish law British people cannot officially obtain Spanish citizenship and retain their British passports. Nevertheless, as time has passed, many of our participants have either taken Spanish citizenship or have seriously explored this option.
UK nationals in Spain are still treated as “tourists”
Many Britons in Spain are not getting the support they need because the UK and Spanish governments (and UK and Spanish media) still treat them as “long-term tourists”, even though the classic stereotype of the older, white, retired and working class British expat is well out of date.
While early waves of large-scale British migration to Spain were fuelled by Spanish “mass tourism” and “residential tourism” initiatives that attracted retirees, entrepreneurs and small business owners, the advent of European Freedom of Movement in 1992 and the financial crisis in 2008 radically diversified the British population in Spain. Today, there are British people of all ages and backgrounds living in every part of Spain, including young people, fluent in Spanish, working in cities and bringing up children. Indeed, every kind of diversity that exists in the UK also pertains to the British in Spain. This gap in the understanding of their lives means that the needs of Britons in Spain are persistently overlooked, denied or dismissed.
A further way that Brexit has impacted on people’s lives is that it has made them rethink how their neighbours and friends might see them. Some, especially in the early days, were afraid they would be ostracised. Almost, without exception, this has turned out to be an unrealised fear. As Chris put it:
All the Spanish I know have tapped me on the hand and they said, “Don’t worry we want you, we want you to stay, you will be alright, we will look after you.”
A lack of clarity from Spanish authorities
The complexity of people’s lives means simple rules and regulations based on legal rights or duties are rarely adequate in practice. Many Britons in Spain are not officially registered as Spanish residents, in part because Spanish authorities have tended to interpret free movement policies in different ways in different areas. In addition, British migration to Spain has always included part-time, temporary and seasonal visitors for whom the regulations are unclear.
What comes through loud and clear is the psychological consequences of the threat to restrict one’s freedom to be mobile. There is a sense that opportunities are being needlessly thrown away, that people’s futures, especially young people’s futures, will be restricted, their horizons narrower – all the more frustrating to people who have experienced the benefits of being able to move and look for work in the EU without too much bureaucracy. There was a sense that the Brexit negotiations assumed unilinear migration and subsequent settlement, rather than the more circular, fluid or ongoing mobility that people understood freedom of movement in Europe to mean.
Identity and agency
UK nationals in Spain have become more aware of themselves as Europeans, and are questioning their relationship to Britain and to Spain. British people experience a “Triple Absence”, feeling ignored by their own government, and to a lesser extent the EU and the Spanish government. As one respondent put it:
Spain’s done its bit, the EU has too. But our own government has done absolutely fucking nothing for us. Nada. Zip. This isn’t a post about me, as it happens, nor the Embassy in Madrid, the Consul in Malaga, the Consulate in Tenerife, who’ve all been as brilliant as they were able to be in the circumstances. There is only one source of betrayal. Our own government.
Our participants’ strong feelings about how Brexit is disrupting their lives exist partly because freedom of movement is widely understood not just as the right to move, but also as an identity as well as an individual and social good. A notable impact of Brexit has been the emergence of campaigns, support groups, and events organised around Brexit and its potential impact on British people in Spain. These groups garner phenomenal resources, both financial and labour, and rely on the extensive and tireless efforts of numerous volunteers.
There has been a dramatic increase in the number of people registered as resident in Spain. There are more and more people applying for Spanish citizenship. But still there is confusion and ambivalence, and a desperate sadness on the part of many that with Brexit something intangible – about an identity, about a sense of openness, about the freedom to embrace something more than a narrow view of a nation state – is irrevocably lost and can never be replaced.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.
Brexiters who selfishly voted to leave are now asked to consider consequential difficulties of neighbours!
It is the Spanish Governments responsibility to provide you with information regarding what, if anything, you need to do in order to continue living in Spain, not the British Government
Excellent article but there is an inacuracy, I’m afraid.
When you say “Many Britons in Spain are not officially registered as Spanish residents, in part because Spanish authorities have tended to interpret free movement policies in different ways in different areas” this last point about “interpretation” is simply and plainly not true, sorry.
Our law does not allow the interpretation you refer to to happen, and there is no option for different areas to decide or “interpret” anything on foreigner’s registration either.
There is indeed many people that decide not to register – proof of this is the huge bracket between 300k and 1m that you recognise in your own article – but that is their own decision (that is also an ilegality done on their side, and they know it).
I’m aware of British not registering for years and they always had a “justification” on why. So, they knew what they were doing and had their reasons to do so.
Being originaly from the Canaries, and now living in the UK for the last 13 years of my life, I do understand their pain with Brexit and I hope everything will resolve well for all of them but please do not picture the issue as something not clear in Spanish law because I don’t think we deserve to be the one to blame here.
We’ve always treated you all as family, and we will continue to do so no matter what your government decides on this. If you have experienced at least once our welcoming character you know this is true…but please do not draw a distorted image on us, simply and plainly because we do not deserve that to happen to us.
It’s your own government who has abandoned you. This is so evident to everyone of us that it goes without saying.
I know how hard something like this can feel, I also know many people “playing it” will be afraid they won’t have now any residence proof and I understand they can feel they need to “play it a bit more” to see if something can be made to allow them to stay…but this is unneccesary, because we don’t have the will to throw you out.
Our friendship hasn’t changed with Brexit, and the links will remain strong and unbroken …but you have to be up to the level and be honourable. Pointing to others to cover your own wrong deeds is inadmissable and disrespectful.
Simply explain it to the Spanish authorities; you’ll have bills, contracts, etc. that will show you were resident there. Spanish authorities are open to look into evidence on these cases, you should not have a big problem to stay where you consider your home now if you’re open with the authorities about why you did not registered when you should have to.
There are no Sajid Javids or Priti Patels in our administration system. We’re not there to catch you and try to deport you.
Good luck to you all with this. See you at the other side of this long tunnel, we’re waiting for you there already.
In response to Santiago I’m sorry much of what you say is plainly not true. You don’t live here and this reads as opinion. Please don’t take my word for it. Register on the CitizensAdviceBureauSpain website to get access to their Facebook page and you’ll see them tirelessly advising thousands of people on how to negotiate the postcode lottery that determines how non-Spanish residents are treated in Spain. They are volunteers and dont receive any financial assistance from the UK. Without them the past 4 years I would have been lost. The British consulate is hopeless.
I strongly refute your notion that you just have to take your paperwork to the Spanish authorities and everything will be ok. That’s the whole reason why Citizens Advice Spain exists. Ask any foreign resident and they’ll give you a story of how the authorities in different regions are a law unto themselves in how they decide to interpret the rules. Much is down to lack of training but there is a culture that forces people to employ a local lawyer to enforce rights.
I am British but a declared Spanish resident, declaring taxes and doing everything to comply but I could give you a list of the double-standards that apply for those not born here. It costs us time, money and most if all a lot of stress. I’ve lived in Spain on and off for 20 years. Speak the language fluently and I can say I have seen many improvements in bureaucracy and administration etc. The digital certificate to allow you to access services, documents online is a big time saver. However, despite having proof down to my phone records of being resident in Spain legally since 2013, the authorities refuse to stamp my residents certificate with permanent, as they are bound to do by EU rules. This means instead of it being a straight forward exchange of documentation at the end of the transition period, as it has bern agreed, I will be forced to justify my existence as if I’d just arrived in Spain.