Brexit Brits from abroad – “There is only one source of betrayal. Our own government”

19th March 2020 / United Kingdom
Brexit Brit from abroad - "There is only one source of betrayal. Our own government"

By Karen O’Reilly: 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 underway 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.

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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.

Karen O’Reilly is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Loughborough University and a freelance qualitative research trainer. This article was also published at the London School of Economics


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