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Brexit abroad: Britons in Europe worry about what comes after split

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In El Poble Nou de Benitatxell, Spain, dozens of flags outside the British school here salute the range of nationalities squeezed into a village of roughly 4,000 people. About a third are Brits, primarily retired, like Anne Gripton. She says she has not set foot on British soil for several years. “I would no longer know how to live in the United Kingdom. Home is here.”

But like many of the 1.2 million Britons living in the European Union, she is worried about how Brexit could throw her future into disarray. Older Brits who paid into the British system are worried about what Brexit will mean for their health care and pensions. Younger ones worry about how Brexit will affect their European spouses and children, and their educational and professional mobility.

“Few Britons who have lived outside the U.K. for some years will be forced to return,” says Peter Kellner, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. Instead, many will have to pay for a resident permit, make fresh arrangements for health care, and perhaps show that they are financially self-sufficient. Not enough thought has been put into what happens to British citizens living in Europe, he says.

El Poble Nou de Benitatxell, Spain

A couple of years ago, Teresa and Kim Sawdy moved from England to Spain to take an early retirement.

Drawn by the beautiful nature, welcoming population, quality of life, and lower costs, they bought an apartment in this sun-kissed town on Spain’s southern coast. Ms. Sawdy first volunteered at a local dog shelter and today teaches English as a foreign language; Mr. Sawdy enjoys his free time.

But like many other Britons living in Europe, the couple say their lives have gotten more difficult because of the fallout over Brexit. They say that with the administrative hurdles they are encountering, it feels as if Brexit had already happened.

Now Mr. Sawdy worries he could have to go back to work, and Ms. Sawdy says she doubts she will “ever get a pension from England.”

From small seaside villages on the coast of Spain, where older British expatriates have found a sunny slice of paradise to retire, to larger cities where younger ones have found a viable professional base, to the European Union more broadly, Brexit and its implications are viewed with genuine concern, if not always great clarity.

Uncertain rights and protections

With the United Kingdom scheduled to leave the EU on Oct. 31, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU negotiators agreed Thursday upon a last-ditch deal on the terms for Brexit. But Parliament still must approve the deal in an extraordinary session on Saturday, and the prospects for success remain uncertain. Should the vote fail, Mr. Johnson would be obliged under the law to seek an extension from the EU – something he has said he would obey, while also promising that the U.K. would leave the EU on Oct. 31 no matter what.

To Sue Wilson, the chair of Bremain in Spain, a pro-remain group that also advocates for the rights of EU citizens in Britain, that timing seems unlikely. “We are pretty sure that we are not going to leave Oct. 31,” she says.

Bremain in Spain started out both campaigning against Brexit and, in case Brexit did pass, working to protect the rights of the 1.2 million British nationals living in the other 27 EU member states. But they came to the conclusion that this would be simply “impossible” if Brexit went ahead. “The only way we can protect all of our rights is to stop Brexit altogether,” Ms. Wilson says.

Spain is the European nation with the highest number of British nationals and one of the easier destinations to get permanent residence. But the group’s concerns are largely the same as those held by British expats across the EU.

Key among those is British willingness to show reciprocity to Europeans in the U.K. In March, Madrid drafted a royal decree of contingency plans preserving the rights of the nearly 370,000 Britons residing in Spain in the event of a no-deal Brexit – if London does the same for EU citizens. “We have always had more confidence in the Spanish government and the European governments to protect us than the U.K. government that has largely ignored us from day one,” says Ms. Wilson.

“Home is here”

In Benitatxell, neighborhoods are named after flowers. White flat-roofed apartments have mushroomed across hilltops overlooking the Mediterranean alongside houses adhering to the softer Valencian style. Dozens of flags outside the British school here salute the range of nationalities squeezed into a village of roughly 4,000 people. About a third are Brits – primarily retired – and they are worried.

Anne Gripton, a retired pharmacist and hotelier, bought a six-bedroom house here in December 2006. The property was worth €1.2 million ($1.3 million) before the housing bubble burst and halved its value. The real estate market has yet to make a full recovery and the uncertainty around Brexit has been of no help. Picking up and leaving would be tough, if she were so inclined.

Margaret and Gerald Hales built their home in El Poble Nou de Benitatxell, Spain, all on one level and wheelchair accessible, hoping to spend their golden years there.

Ms. Gripton, now an official resident of Spain, says she has not set foot on British soil for several years. Benitatxell may have only one nurse and two taxis, but she envisions growing old here. “I would no longer know how to live in the United Kingdom. Home is here,” she says over coffee with fellow Britons as the local band gears up to celebrate a regional holiday.

The Valencia region has Spain’s largest concentration of Britons. The flurry of communiques and meetings arranged by British consular authorities hoping to reassure them has had the opposite effect, especially on those following the blow-by-blow of Brexit negotiations and trying to understand the implications of deal versus no-deal. “If you are not worried about what is happening then you don’t understand what is happening,” says Ms. Gripton.

Margaret Hales and her husband have been living in Benitatxell for more than a decade. The community includes retirees – who make up more than a quarter of British expats in Spain – and what Gerald Hales calls yo-yos and swallows, Britons who come for the short term, lured by milder winters and more sunny days. Not all of them are official residents, although the uncertainty around Brexit has pushed many to register there.

“We are living in a nightmare situation,” says Ms. Hales. “It is more obvious to us because we live in Spain and we know that our rights are going to be taken away from us.”

Loss of free movement

Freedom of movement has meant that citizens can work and live anywhere in the EU. “After Brexit, this ends,” notes Peter Kellner, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe who focuses on Brexit, populism, and electoral democracy. “New arrangements will vary from country to country. The British government offers pages of advice on living in each of the other 27 member states.”

“In practice, few Britons who have lived outside the U.K. for some years will be forced to return to the U.K.,” Mr. Kellner adds. Instead many will have to pay for a resident permit, make fresh arrangements for health care, and perhaps show that they are financially self-sufficient. Even if a deal were reached, he says, not enough thought has been put into what happens to British citizens living in Europe.

Gloucestershire native Thomas Hadland works in publishing and is registered as an autonomous worker in Valencia – a status that costs him €280 per month ($310). He made the decision to stay in the city even after breaking up with his Spanish partner, largely because he was afraid of being caught on the wrong side of Brexit. He moved into his new apartment in June.

Having lived in Russia and studied foreign languages at university, Mr. Hadland is acutely aware of the high costs and administrative burdens confronted by those living in Europe but who are from outside its free movement zone. He views talk in his home country of deporting Europeans who have not regularized their status by the end of 2020 with alarm.

“If I’m very selfish about this I would actually rather have no deal than deal because the deal is so horrible,” he says. “The deal is ending freedom of movement for people … which to me is a massive, massive negative. … A no deal would be so chaotic that something good might come out of it.”



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