quarta-feira, 31 de maio de 2017

Brexit exiles on Costa del Sol fear for their future

Brexit exiles on Costa del Sol fear for their future
For many pensioners, Britain’s divorce from EU raises the prospect of having to return home.

By           GUY HEDGECOE               5/28/17, 6:00 PM CET Updated 5/31/17, 7:15 AM CET

MÁLAGA, Spain — Taking aim at the dart board at a pub in Fuengirola, Alf Brewer looks every bit the British retiree living the good life on the Costa del Sol. But despite his beachwear and sun-reddened face, he stands out among a politically detached British expat community. A long-time member of the Labour Party, he has been tirelessly campaigning for its international branch since moving to Spain 10 years ago.

It’s a tough job. Even with a U.K. general election looming on June 8 and the tumultuous state of British politics, it can be hard to motivate fellow Labour voters.

“I know there are a lot of Labour people here, but trying to get a gathering together…,” he says, his voice trailing off in exasperation.

“There are too many other attractions,” he explains. “For example, we’ve never had a meeting anywhere near the summer, because it’s too hot, people spend too long on the beach or too long in a bar. It’s lonely in that there isn’t the same political drive and passion [as in the U.K.] and trying to get involved in Spanish politics is so difficult.”

But while Spain’s many British residents may have little interest in the day-to-day developments of U.K. politics, they are deeply troubled by how their country’s imminent split from the EU will affect them — and in some ways already has. These expatriates are also concerned that the Brexit debate raging more than 1,000 miles to the north — with its focus on trade deals, the economy and migration to the U.K. — has little to do with their own very specific concerns.

With the U.K. about to negotiate its divorce from the EU, the only remaining certainty for British expats is the sun.
“The benefits to a Brit living in Europe are massive — and they’re all in danger of being taken away from us,” Brewer says.

“What the British population [in Spain] is saying is: ‘Who’s looking after us?’ We came here under a set of circumstances that somebody else has changed. And we don’t hear anybody in the U.K. looking after us, defending us, looking after our rights, negotiating for us.”

Estimates regarding the number of British nationals living in Spain fluctuate wildly. Many are not formally registered and many others travel frequently between the two countries. However, the National Statistics Institute (INE) puts the figure at around 300,000, with the majority of those living either on the Costa Blanca on Spain’s east coast, or the southern Costa del Sol. Both areas have built up large tourism industries, driven in large part by British visitors, since the latter days of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who died in 1975.

Juan Carlos Maldonado, mayor of Mijas, a town near Málaga on the Costa del Sol, says the British “represent a major presence here, so they contribute in a big, decisive way to our economy, particularly from the point of view of residential tourism — most of them live here all year round.”

A general view of villas with the Spanish city of Fuengirola on the background | David Ramos/Getty Images
A general view of villas with the Spanish city of Fuengirola in the background | David Ramos/Getty Images
Mijas, like Fuengirola, Benalmádena and several other resorts near Málaga, is perched on the Mediterranean coastline, with a commercial area near the beach and a zone further inland where expats tend to live in villas in gated communities.

These foreigners were drawn primarily by the climate, but also by the strength of the pound against the euro and Spain’s free health care system, to which citizens of fellow EU countries have access.

But now, with the U.K. about to negotiate its divorce from the EU, the only remaining certainty for British expats is the sun.

* * *

British pensioner Isabel Hampton flew from Spain to the U.K. last June to vote Remain in the EU referendum. A lifelong Conservative voter, she says many of her retired British friends on the Costa del Sol have been affected by the dip in the value of the pound, from €1.30 just before the ballot to around €1.15 now.

“If you’re on a limited or fixed income and that’s your pension then it matters and it matters big time,” she says, speaking in a square full of British bars in Benalmádena. “You come out here to have a nice life, an enjoyable life, a relaxed life — and then all of a sudden you go back to penny counting.”

For many, health care is an even bigger concern than the weakness of the pound.

The Spanish health care system has remained robust despite the pressures of austerity in recent years. The U.K. government pays Spain to help fund this service for its nationals, to the tune of £223 million in the 2014-15 period. The cost to Spain of looking after a mainly pension-aged British community is likely much higher than that, but with expats being so crucial to the local economy, it is a complaint rarely raised in the political sphere.

pain is Europe's top destination for British expats with the southern regions of Costa del Sol and Alicante being the most popular places to live | David Ramos/Getty Images
Spain is Europe’s top destination for British expats, with the southern regions of Costa del Sol and Alicante being the most popular places to live | David Ramos/Getty Images
But, as Hampton points out, pensioners make up a large proportion of Spain’s British community. “If all the old people who retired out here all went back to the U.K., the National Health Service would crash,” she says.

Javier Castrodeza, a senior official in the Spanish health ministry, has said that once the U.K. has formalized its departure, British residents and visitors will be treated “as non-EU citizens, with a different health care status” — that is, without free access to the Spanish system.

For many pensioners, that raises the prospect of either having to pay for private health care — or returning home.

“If we lose [health care], I don’t know what we do,” says Glyn Emerton, who has lived with his wife Kathleen in Mijas for 10 years. “We’d have to fund our own health care, which would be impossible, bearing in mind our age and what it would cost, so would we have to go back to Great Britain? I certainly hope not.”

Kathleen, his wife, agrees. “It’s the not knowing, that’s the worst thing,” she says.

* * *

One way to stave off such uncertainty for long-time British residents would be to apply for Spanish nationality, thereby ensuring they would remain EU citizens after Britain formally leaves the bloc. But there is no agreement in place allowing dual Spanish-British nationality — one passport must be surrendered in order to gain the other.

This has sparked an online campaign by long-time British residents to persuade the government in Madrid to waive that rule and allow them to gain dual nationality if they have lived in Spain for more than 10 years.

“We want to be Spaniards, Europeans and British — a reflection of our true identity, one that Brexit will take away from us,” says the petition, which has just over 20,000 signatories. As a precedent, it cites legislation passed by the conservative government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in 2015, which granted dual nationality to the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492.

The Brexit effect appears to be most pronounced in the property market, where Brits are by far the biggest foreign buyers.
But the pleas of disgruntled British residents do not seem to be a priority for Mariano Rajoy’s minority government. The conservative prime minister has already scored a notable Brexit-related victory by ensuring that any future divorce deal between the EU and the U.K. that affects Gibraltar must be approved by Spain, according to the European Council’s draft negotiating guidelines.

However, if British residents start to leave the country in large numbers, Spain is likely to feel the pinch. The registered British population of the Costa del Sol’s Málaga province, where many expats settle, fell by just under 10 percent last year to 45,000, although that continued a trend that had begun several years before. If the exodus accelerates, the economic impact for Spain could be severe.

The Brexit effect appears to be most pronounced in the property market, where Brits are by far the biggest foreign buyers, accounting for nearly a fifth of sales to non-nationals. British purchases had been rising rapidly in recent years, more than doubling between 2012 and 2015, as Spain’s market recovered from a double-dip recession. But last year spending flattened out, a development the land registrars’ association attributed directly to the U.K.’s imminent departure from the EU.

* * *

The Costa del Sol’s British community inhabit an unusual political microclimate. Spain has traditionally drawn many elderly, relatively affluent, British citizens who would be natural conservative voters. Yet they are as unsettled as their Labour and Liberal counterparts about how Brexit might hurt them. Another issue that unites expats across the political spectrum is the fact that they lose the right to vote after 15 years abroad, leaving them unable to influence the general election.

“A lot of people are worried by the stance that the [British] government is taking and they’re worried because they’re unable to vote in these elections,” says Giles Brown, who hosts a phone-in show on Talk Radio Europe in Marbella.

He estimates that around 80 percent of British expats here who took part in last year’s referendum voted to remain. One of the reasons for that, he explains, is that the members of the British community are acutely aware of how Brexit affects their pocket.

 “To say, as was the case perhaps 20 years ago, that people come over here to enjoy the sunshine, play golf and have lunch out three times a week doesn’t really ring true,” Brown says.

“Things have changed here — the value of the pound has fallen and people are finding it hard […] A lot of my listeners are finding it very hard to make ends meet.”

Back in Fuengirola, Alf Brewer looks ruefully across the Mediterranean as he recalls his hopes and dreams when he moved here a decade ago.

“I wanted to come and live in the sun and hopefully have a longer life without any worries,” he says. “That seems to have been affected slightly by people voting for us to leave the EU.”

Then he adds, half joking: “But they can’t take the sun away from us!”

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