‘It’s better than no deal’: Do Brits in Europe hope Theresa May wins Brexit vote?

A momentous vote will take place in the British parliament on Tuesday when Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal is put to an MPs vote. British citizens living in Europe are torn over whether or not to back the agreement that would preserve most of their rights, but confirm the UK's exit from the EU.

'It's better than no deal': Do Brits in Europe hope Theresa May wins Brexit vote?
British MPs in the House of Commons await the result of crucial vote linked to Brexit. Photo: AFP

On Tuesday, the House of Commons, the UK’s lower house, will vote on what is probably the most important parliamentary vote in Britain this century.

If MPs approve Theresa May’s 585-page Brexit deal, the terms of Britain’s future relationship with the EU will have been broadly defined.

In such a scenario, May’s Conservative government could yet survive to lead the next phase of negotiations with the bloc after March 2019 and Brits in the EU will have retained most of the rights they currently enjoy, although some crucial ones will be lost.

Should parliament reject the terms of the deal, four potential outcomes look likely. The prime minister could try and negotiate a new deal (unlikely, given that the EU has said this is not an option); the UK electorate could be given a second chance to vote on Brexit (broadly termed a People’s Vote); or Britain could leave the EU without a deal on March 29th. A rejection of the deal could also lead to a general election in the UK.

While PM Theresa May doesn't appear to have enough support it's still impossible to tell which way the vote will go because of the division among political parties in Westminster.

Britons living in the European Union, among those groups most affected by Brexit, are equally split about whether to support the deal. 

READ ALSO: 'You are a priority': France tries to reassure Britons over Brexit

If the Withdrawal Agreement is approved, the rights of Brits to remain indefinitely in their host country would be secured, as would their index-linked pensions, healthcare cover and the right to study.

But those rights would be landlocked: Brits in the EU now look certain to lose the right to onward freedom of movement throughout the bloc.

Their right to vote in local elections also hangs in the balance. That is why many Brits are still hoping for a People’s Vote and potentially no Brexit at all.

So what should they wish for when the result of the MPs vote is announced on December 11th?

“I'm sure everyone realises that it's an impossible choice,” said Kalba Meadows, chair of Remain in France Together (RIFT) – the French branch of British in Europe, the grassroots pan-European campaign group for the rights of Brits in Europe.

“Vote for, and it preserves most of our rights under the Withdrawal Agreement – but …. Vote against, and you risk a no deal. Everyone will have a different view on that. It's a moral maze, and for us the question of voting for or against the deal should be a kind of 'free vote', up to each member,” added Meadows.

And Britons living in the EU were certainly making up their own minds. The fact they will lose onward free movement if the deal goes through was the reason many hope it gets voted down.

June, a retired Briton who has been living in Germany for more than a decade said: “Many British in the EU have cross-border jobs. This means being in two EU countries on a regular basis. Freedom of movement is essential.”

Jan Glover, a Briton living in France for the last 11 years agrees.

“The Withdrawal Agreement also has a lot of uncertainty and total lack of guarantees for UK citizens living in the EU who rely on freedom of movement to work and also for those with businesses who rely on cross border services arrangements. That makes Mrs May's deal a very bad one,” Glover told The Local.

Other Brits however are wary of the deal being rejected, seeing it as the best of all evils.

READ ALSO: Theresa May blasted for lauding the end of free movement for Britons across EU

“If there is going to be a Brexit then for us UK citizens living in the EU May's deal is a good one,” said Robert Neil, a British resident of Crete, Greece. “It has lots of certainty and guarantees unlike a no deal. A no deal could be a disaster.”

Others see rejecting the deal as the first step towards positive change.

“No deal will hurt a lot of people, but it will be short and sharp and will precipitate change,” Jez Thomas, a Briton based in Brussels, told The Local.

Paul Hearn, a Briton based in France said: “My hope is that Parliament will stop Brexit, soon after voting against the proposed deal, adding that “a People’s Vote is the only fallback position.” Hearn condemns the binary choice being offered to the UK’s parliament.

Clarissa Killwick, a founding member of Brexpats Hear Our Voice and a member of British in Italy, agrees Brits are essentially caught between a rock and a hard place.

“I see ‘no deal’ as the worst possible scenario, and then any kind of deal as the second worst scenario,” Killwick, who would prefer a second referendum, told The Local.

Yet she warns that a People’s Vote could also be a source of frustration for many Britons in Europe given that many would be excluded from the vote, as they were in the first referendum.

As the law currently stands, British citizens who have been resident outside of the UK for longer than 15 years are no longer eligible to vote – they are disenfranchised.

“I think it would be totally tragic for the UK to go ahead with this without an opportunity to reflect. A People's Vote would seem fair but once again many of us will most likely be disenfranchised because of the 15-year rule. I haven't heard any noises that EU citizens in the UK would be permitted to vote or 16 and 17-year-olds. So my fear is a People's Vote would not be democratic enough,” says Killwick.

The Overseas Electors Bill, known as the Vote for Life bill, is seeking to change this, but that amendment is unlikely to become law in time for the between 1.2 million and 3.6 million Brits in Europe to vote in any additional referendum on Brexit.

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In a recent poll of The Local's readers the vast majority of respondents favoured having a second referendum, believing it is the right thing to do given that voters now know what kind of Brexit is on the table.

But many are aware there was a risk of stirring up yet more division only to end up with the same result.

For the moment Britons across the EU can only watch on at the momentous event taking place in the UK, just like they have had to do since the shock referendum result.

READ MORE: 'Brits in France are victims of Brexit' – French senator vows to fight for UK citizens

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INTERVIEW: The lawyers calling for a better visa for British homeowners in Spain

A group of lawyers is campaigning for a new visa which would allow non-resident British second-homeowners in Spain to freely enjoy their properties post-Brexit without having to show the high level of savings currently required.

INTERVIEW: The lawyers calling for a better visa for British homeowners in Spain

As most Britons are now fully aware of, since Brexit came into force, UK nationals who aren’t EU residents can only spend 90 days out of 180 days in Spain and the Schengen Area.

This has proven very problematic for Britons who own a second home in Spain who, when purchasing their Spanish properties, were under the impression they would always be able to split their time freely and flexibly between the UK and Spain without having to become Spanish residents (as long as they respected Spain’s residency and fiscal rules).

It used be an ideal situation for these ‘part-year dwellers’, the best of both worlds some may argue, but the UK’s exit from the EU has complicated things enormously for them. 

Estimates based on Spanish government data suggest that in 2020 the number of Britons who owned property in Spain was anywhere between 800,000 and 1 million.

There are now 407,000 UK nationals who are residents in Spain in 2022, and although there is no exact data on the number of Britons who own or rent property long-term in Spain without being residents, it could easily be in the hundreds of thousands. 

READ ALSO: Is it true Britons are leaving Spain ‘in droves’ after Brexit as UK tabloids claims?

They are undoubtedly of great economic importance to some parts of Spain, as evidenced by the Valencian government’s announcement last November that they would push the national Tourism Ministry to make it easier for non-resident British nationals to spend more than 90 out of 180 days in the region without having to apply for a visa.

There hasn’t been a public update on this front since, but Spanish law firm Costaluz Lawyers has recently put the issue back on the table, proposing a new type of visa for British second-home owners. 

The Local Spain spoke to María Luisa Castro, the lawyer who’s been leading the campaign, to learn more about it.

“We propose a new visa that caters to British property buyers who want to live in Spain but don’t have the necessary funds for the current visa options,” Castro explained. 

“We’d like to make it very simple with just two main requirements. Firstly, applicants would have to show that they have owned a property in Spain for at least three years and secondly that they have proof of an income of at least €1,130 a month, roughly half the funds required for the non-lucrative visa”.

Castro also stressed that as part of this potential visa, applicants should have to fulfil conditions for health insurance and have a clean criminal record, a standard practice for most Spanish residence visas.

“But the main condition would be property ownership and sufficient funds,” Castro emphasized.

READ ALSO: What are the pros and cons of Spain’s non-lucrative visa?

The campaign calls on British second homeowners to sign a petition to get the Spanish government to listen to the proposal and meet demands.

“We need 500,000 signatures in order for the issue to be discussed by the Spanish government, but we are also gathering signatures to give these people a voice and create awareness. We hope to be able to lobby both the UK and the Spanish governments to start bilateral negotiations” she explained.

Castro believes that there is definitely a need for this type of visa, especially for Britons, who now have to deal with stricter rules and have fewer options since they became non-EU nationals after Brexit.

“There are thousands of British property owners in Spain who bought their properties many years ago as second homes, but also as a place for future retirement or for health reasons,” she said.  

Crucially, even though the petition states non-EU citizens, Castro believes that it should really only be made available to Britons.

“It is not simply the fact that they are homeowners that means they should be considered for a new type of visa, but the fact that they had full-time ownership rights in the past, which makes the current restriction a loss of acquired rights”.  

In other words, Castro argues that those from other non-EU countries bought properties in Spain knowing that they could only stay 90 days out of every 180, but those from the UK bought them on the basis that they would have greater flexibility in this regard.  

“We hope that a visa which requires proof of finances, plus the evidence of being a homeowner with a retirement plan in Spain will be sufficient,” she said.

Another lawyer, Fernando del Canto, from Del Canto Chambers law firm, has previously argued that ownership plus health and retirement associated rights are being infringed upon by the Schengen limitations as per the European Human Rights Convention (EHRC). “A bilateral or reciprocal agreement between the UK and Spain on this particular matter is needed,” he said. 

The EHRC states that “every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of their possessions. No one shall be deprived of their possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law”.

Judging by the above, it is open to interpretation as to whether it means that Britons’ rights are being infringed upon or not.

Nonetheless, Castro believes that the 90-day rule has had a huge negative impact on British non-resident homeowners and on Spain itself.

“We are frequently contacted by clients desperate to keep staying here for longer periods, as part of an acquired lifestyle and for health reasons. Now they need to explore the possibilities of the non-lucrative visa, which on many occasions, they cannot afford”. 

She believes there is a risk that Britons could stop buying in Spain, “particularly those who bought a property for retirement”, and that many of her British clients have already felt forced to sell their Spanish properties because of Brexit limitations.

READ ALSO: What worries British second home owners in Spain most about Brexit

Britons have historically accounted for the largest group of foreign property buyers in Spain. In 2018, they represented 24.3 percent of the market share. The figure dropped to 20 percent in 2019 and by late 2021 Germans had surpassed Britons as the main foreign buyers in Spain.

This however may have had more to do with Spain’s coronavirus restrictions for non-EU travellers and the UK’s own complex traffic-light system than only as a consequence of Brexit, as in early 2022 UK nationals were back at the top of the property podium again.

So despite the new setbacks, it appears that Spain is still an attractive location for budding British second-home owners, but perhaps more so now for those who can afford the golden visa or non-lucrative visa. 

But how likely is it that such legislation will be approved?

READ ALSO: Can Spain legally offer more than 90 days to Britons?

Castro firmly believes that the Spanish government will listen to foreign homeowners’ demands. “If we get a good number of signatures and the UK government is also lobbied, it will create awareness. Retired people are an increasing source of economic strength for our country.

“Currently, only those buying properties over €500,000 can apply for residency based on property purchase (through the golden visa). Other EU countries have lower financial thresholds”, she explained.

READ ALSO: What foreigners should be aware of before applying for Spain’s golden visa

Castro encourages second homeowners to do whatever they can to help this visa proposal become a reality, as well as signing the petition.

She advises them to make their voices heard through blog posts, newspaper articles and writing to local politicians.