Covid travel restrictions explain the current eerie atmosphere in towns on the Costas of southern Spain, but will the impact of Brexit prolong the ghost town conditions? Andrew Kaye investigates.
Se Alquila (‘for rent’) signs are plastered on apartments as far as the eye can see. Dust lines the shelves in souvenir shops. Hotels are shut for the foreseeable future.
On the Spanish Costas, the worry for British residents with properties to let or businesses to run, is that resorts will still feel just as empty come the spring. Few confidently predict the summer will see anything like the normal numbers of tourists.
Even so, Angela in Roquetas de Mar says she’s glad that she, her husband and 19-year-old son, moved here just before the cut-off date on New Year’s Day.
‘We’ve got a property, Spain offers us a lot of freedom, we do see this as our “forever home”,’ she says. A retired police officer, Angela and her family secured a solicitor and obtained their padrón [certificate of living in a specific municipality] when a small window opened for travel to Spain last August. Against tough odds, they booked their removal van in the lead up to Christmas.
The rush for residency
The British Embassy in Spain was always clear: as long as UK nationals submitted the necessary paperwork with their town hall and the local police, or else could demonstrate they were living in Spain prior to 31 December, they could even arrive on Christmas Day.
While comprehensive annual figures for individuals who successfully registered for residency in 2020 are yet to be published, data from Spain’s Secretary of State for Migration has detailed how more than 50,000 British citizens applied for the new TIE card (Tarjeta de Identidad de Extranjero) between July and December last year.
‘Throughout the whole process, the Spanish government has tried to do its best,’ points out Michael Harris, spokesman for EuroCitizens, a campaign group for British nationals that has been involved in regular meetings with the Spanish government and the British Embassy in Madrid.
For UK nationals who set up their lives in Spain long before the term ‘Brexit’ was even coined, Harris stresses they did so under certain conditions.
‘People have taken a big hit on their rights,’ he says. ‘The goalposts have changed, you don’t think about these things, as rights are like air molecules. You just breathe them. You don’t think about them until they’re no longer there.’
The EuroCitizens spokesman points to the commonly reported changes caused by Brexit, be it the Schengen Zone 90-in-180 day rule, which means UK nationals without residential status can’t lawfully remain resident in Spain beyond defined timeframes, and the much-vaunted changes to driving license requirements.
The far-reaching impacts of Brexit
In many of the Facebook chat rooms for Brits in Spain, repeat threads bemoan new charges imposed on financial transfers from UK bank accounts and import duties that see prohibitive charges for anyone looking to import UK supplies, even from websites like Amazon.
These are just a couple of the changes that have been publicised, but Margaret Hales, a spokeswoman and representative from Expat Citizen Rights in EU (ECREU) believes that ‘little things are going to keep on cropping up’.
There are changes to rules that might not be so well understood. While much of the focus in recent media coverage has been on people of pensionable age, approximately 60% of Britons in Spain are below the State Pension Age.
‘There’s the inability to provide services in other EU countries, for example if you’re a lawyer. It affects certain qualifications, having to re-qualify,’ highlights Michael Harris of EuroCitizens.
That said, Margaret Hales believes there are fairly distinct impacts for the often older residents living in areas like hers, in Alicante.
‘There are the people with holiday homes, the so-called “Swallows” and there are the campsites where people still have GB plates on the back of their car. They weren’t counted by anybody prior to Brexit, and due to Covid their sites have been closed.’
Anne Hernández, from the Malaga province, is president of Brexpats in Spain, a charity that grew out of a Facebook group in Mijas. Just days before Christmas, she helped to register over 100 people who needed to exchange their driving license to the Spanish licensing regime.
‘People suddenly saw the light on 29-30 December. Still so many people think that Spain won’t make them take a driving test here, as they don’t speak Spanish. There’s no guarantee of that.’
Back to Blighty
Bob, a resident in the Almeria province of Andalusia, worries that some Brits have got themselves into a muddle about the new rules and despite the continued efforts of the British Embassy and other sources of official information, there are some, including Brits in camper vans, who don’t understand the 90-in-180 day visa rule.
‘Some are hoping that by keeping their head below the parapet, they won’t get caught out. People seem to think they can get across without checks taking place. But if someone’s got a relative who is ill in the UK, they can’t just go and then come back again.’
For people of working age and younger people hoping to climb career ladders, Margaret Hales emphasises even if Britons are registered in Spain, they can’t up sticks and go and live or work in other EU member states. ‘The fact is that people have turned into a third country national in the blink of an eye,’ she says.
What’s more, British nationals whose relatives and loved ones are EU nationals can no longer move back together to the UK without first overcoming new barriers imposed by Boris Johnson’s government.
The Immigration Act (2020) has established a ‘points-based’ system, which means British people who have made a life for themselves and have an EU spouse or partner in Spain won’t be able to move back as a family unit unless they meet certain income and qualifications thresholds.
‘EU family members will have to meet very demanding UK regulations,’ Michael Harris says. ‘There are cases of people who have [EU] spouses and elderly parents back in the UK – and some Britons won’t be able to go back together. So this could break up families.’
Facing the facts
Bob, who together with his wife moved to Spain from France just over a year ago, feels a lot of information has been made available to notify people of the changes caused by Brexit, but he worries about friends’ reliance on social media channels and the disinformation that, for some at least, has obscured British nationals’ rights and responsibilities.
‘It’s literally Chinese whispers, the next person down the line repeats something, it then becomes a truth,’ he says.
A key fact that remains unclear is how many people have accessed the UK National Support Fund set up to assist Brits with securing their residency rights. ‘We need more data on who they’ve been dealing with,’ adds Michael Harris.
The Covid factor
The challenge, too, is that Brexit has occurred in the middle of a global pandemic. While tourist numbers remain dramatically down, some believe we won’t appreciate the unique challenges Brexit presents until the pandemic recedes.
‘We won’t be able to see what problems Covid has masked for a while,’ Harris says. ‘Imagine a normal Christmas with normal volumes of people travelling. Covid could have masked some of the issues related to citizens’ rights and that’s the elephant in the room.’
For many Brits, access to healthcare is the most immediate concern. Anne Hernández from Brexpats in Spain is getting regular phone calls from concerned sons and daughters of elderly Brits, worried about how they’ll be vaccinated against Covid.
‘All residents should be on the padrón but they do not always keep their addresses updated, so unless they are registered in the system as an S1 resident, self-employed or contracted here and paying into the system, I don’t know how the Spanish authorities are going to contact those British residents here who are paying private medical insurance.’
Bob in Almeria states: ‘Covid’s the main thing, Brexit has no effect on us, we’ve got no ties with the UK for property or money, we’re quite okay in this respect.’
He and his wife have already applied for their NIE documents and while they have checked the web to find available appointments with the police, he says they’re not panicked.
Former police officer, Angela from Roquetas de Mar, likewise feels ‘relatively protected’. She and her husband haven’t received their formal outcome from their NIE application but nevertheless she regrets the scaremongering she’s heard about coming to Spain.
While Angela regrets that her parents can no longer move here, even though they’d been considering it – ‘prior to 31 December they would have had sufficient funds, but can’t move now due to the changes to the financial requirements’ – she still urges people with a decent income, ‘if you’re still thinking of coming to Spain, you should still realise your dreams.’
Sunnier in Spain
For Bob, meanwhile, whatever challenges might yet lie ahead as a result of Brexit, life in Spain feels generally positive. ‘Why would we want to go back to somewhere that’s cold, grey and expensive,’ he says about the prospect of moving back to Britain.
Angela concurs: ‘There’s a lot of positives I feel about living in Spain. It’s a very supportive community, and on Covid, it’s far more robust here in Spain than in the UK.’
However, Anne Hernandez cautions people not to think of life in Spain as a ‘permanent holiday’, and that Brexit could complicate many people’s situation.
‘People think we’re living in a lovely property, the sun shines for 365 days a year, but there are British students at university, their parents live here in Spain, and the kids’ halls of residence are closed – but if they’re older than 21, they don’t qualify for family reunification. There are people who’ve had Type 1 diabetes or cancer and can’t get private medical insurance for love or money. As far as Great Britain is concerned, we’re out of sight and out of mind.’
It’s only weeks since the Brexit transition period came to an end. Advocacy groups working hard to secure citizens’ rights are clear that for many Brits living in Spain, the risk remains that the toughest transition is still to come.
For UK nationals who are resident in Spain, and who need help to complete their residence application or registration, support from organisations funded by the UK Nationals Support Fund is available at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/living-in-spain
Andrew Kaye is a freelance writer, teacher and coach. He offers coaching sessions for individuals looking for change in their professional or personal lives. He blogs at www.andrewkaufman.co.uk
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