By Sara Houlison
(EurActiv) — Spain is the most popular destination of choice for British expats and with Friday’s (29 March) passing of another key Brexit date, they are more anxious about their future than ever before.
British citizens in Spain are in limbo, not knowing how their country’s withdrawal from the bloc will affect their lives, with doubt looming over issues including travelling to other EU countries to visit loved ones or start a new life, sending children off to universities abroad and maintaining current rights like being able to access healthcare.
On Wednesday evening (27 March), lawmakers in the House of Commons voted down a series of options intended to end the Brexit deadlock in Westminster, while Prime Minister Theresa May said she would resign if her withdrawal deal passes.
The UK was due to leave the EU on 29 March, exactly two years after it invoked Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which set in motion a maximum of two years of negotiations between London and Brussels. But that date has been pushed back at the request of London to allow extra time for lawmakers to back May’s deal.
Over 1,609 km away from Westminster, ordinary citizens who have set up home in Madrid are already taking steps to limit any fallout further down the line.
“My immediate family is an example of what happens when people make decisions like this that just drive a bus through people’s lives,” Susan House, a British woman who has lived in Madrid for 40 years, told Efe-epa.
House, an author of educational materials for children, and her British husband moved to Madrid in 1980. Their two daughters were born in Spain and have British citizenship.
She is in the process of applying for Spanish citizenship, which involves multiple tests to prove to the authorities she has a certain amount of knowledge of the nation’s culture and a command of the language.
“It just never seemed necessary, it just seemed like passports were things we just used to travel around with, it didn’t really matter,” she said of not having applied for Spanish citizenship sooner. “However, that’s changed.”
House’s mother lives in Malta, an EU member state, and she fears that remaining British could complicate future visits to the island nation.
Katharine Scott, another long-term British resident of Madrid and a colleague of House, is also undertaking the years-long process of becoming Spanish.
Worse off even with Spanish citizenship
But taking on Spanish citizenship, which requires renouncing British citizenship, will not guarantee the same rights that Brits have now as EU citizens, according to Scott. “We might need visas to go to Britain, in the case of going to look after aged parents.”
“As far as I can see, the only way to maintain the rights that I’ve had since I came to live here is by changing the Spanish nationality law,” said Scott, who moved to Spain in 1987.
Out of all the EU member states, excluding the UK, Spain is home to the largest population of British nationals.
According to Spanish government figures, there were some 232,837 Britons registered in the country in 2018, although the figure is believed to be closer to 300,000 as many have not signed up as residents.
Most were registered as living on the “costas” in the eastern region of Valencia (76,619) and Andalusia in the south (75,372), while some 9,659 Britons were registered as living in the Madrid region.
Besides the high number of Britons who are retired and moved for the favourable weather, professionals and families from the UK have also chosen to make Spain their home.
EuroCitizens, a campaign group set up after the UK’s 2016 referendum, seeks to preserve the rights of UK citizens in Spain and those of Spanish nationals in the UK.
Michael Harris, chair of EuroCitizens, told Efe-epa there was growing uncertainty among Spain’s British community.
British residents were concerned about travelling out of Spain and wondered if they would have to carry around Spanish documents with them next month, according to Harris.
And important life decisions were “up in the air,” he said, with Britons in Spain not knowing whether they would be able to send their children off to universities in other EU countries.
Last Saturday, some 300 people turned up to a gathering in the central Madrid square Plaza Margaret Thatcher for an event organized by EuroCitizens that coincided with a protest of over 1 million people in London calling for a “People’s Vote” on any final deal between the UK and EU.
About 100 members of “Bremain in Spain,” another group lobbying to protect the citizens’ rights, joined the protest in London.
Sue Wilson, chair of Bremain in Spain, said in a statement: “It was a sign of the commitment of Bremain in Spain members that so many of them joined us to march in London, to show that we really do have a voice.”
Should another public vote on the Brexit deal become a reality, House and Scott would be ineligible to vote because they have lived outside the UK for longer than 15 years.
“When it’s a referendum over something which is pretty existential to your life, to be denied the right to vote was I think a bit dirty,” House said of the 2016 referendum.
Matt Davies, 34, originally from the eastern English city of Peterborough, moved to Madrid over four years ago, where he works in a call centre.
Davies, a member of Bremain in Spain, is also concerned that Brexit will impact freedom of movement and that it could thwart any future plans to move to other EU countries, or even back to the UK.
“Would employers be less inclined to employ UK citizens in the future?” Davies asked.
Some of Davies’ fears about continuing to live and work in Spain have been alleviated by the country’s government having recently announced a Royal Decree, which promises to protect UK citizens in Spain if the UK government agrees to reciprocal measures in the event of a no deal.
Kevin Jones, 35, a Welsh music producer originally from the town of Caernarfon, has been out of the UK for five years and in Spain for the past two, where he lives in Madrid with his Spanish wife. At the time of the referendum, Jones was living in India, where he voted for “remain” by proxy.
Jones considers himself a “reluctant remainer” because despite seeing the advantages of the UK being in the EU, especially for poorer regions like Wales, “I’ve also seen the devastation that years of austerity and neo-liberal policies imposed by the EU have had on the Mediterranean countries like Spain.”
He voted in favour of the UK staying in the EU because he felt there was a chance to reform the EU from within.
Jones believes Brexit will not change much between the UK and Spain because “both countries are intertwined and there’s no way of successfully de-tangling that relationship.”
And while Brexit could involve more paperwork for UK nationals wanting to live in the EU, having lived in other countries that require visas and even more paperwork, Jones does not think red tape would stop Brits living and working in the EU after Brexit.