Over the years I’ve lived in Spain, I’ve never given too much thought to how Brits abroad are perceived by those back ‘home’. Not, that is, until the Brexit referendum opened my eyes.
British citizens in Spain are accustomed to how “expats” are portrayed by the media. Images of bowls-playing pensioners, Brits lazing on the beach, or frequenting Union-Jack festooned English bars are stereotypical and jaded images. But what about our fellow British citizens back in the UK? What is their impression of us?
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A stereotypical image of Brits enjoying 'expat' life in a bar in Orihuela. Photo: AFP
When I tell UK people where I live, the most common response is “lucky you”. It’s hard to disagree. I’m living the retirement that I dreamed of (Brexit excepted) and I’m grateful for it every day.
Brits in the UK always imagine I live in a villa near the sea, have a great social life and spend hours in the sun making the most of the climate. I can’t argue with any of that – it’s all true – though my idea of a great social life is rather quieter than most would imagine. What they don’t appreciate, however, is the effort it took to achieve this dream, and the threat it’s under today.
Four years ago, my husband and I bought our two-bedroomed house for a pittance, then spent every cent of our life savings renovating it. We would never be able to afford anything comparable in UK – not even close. On top of that, we couldn’t afford a comparable lifestyle, as our only source of income is a British state pension. How anyone in the UK manages to live on that, with the increasing cost of living, is beyond me.
It’s not all about money though. A house move is one of the most stressful life experiences. Add to that the complication of moving to a different city or region, and you’re upping the ante. Moving to another country requires a different level of courage and stamina altogether.
When people in Britain mention how fortunate we are, I suspect they’re not just jealous of our lifestyles but that we had the nerve to make it happen. Despite the massive upheaval though, more Brits than ever before are now moving to Europe.
In the whole of 2015, the number was just 58,000, so this represents a significant increase, which has been directly attributed to the Brexit referendum. The numbers are expected to increase further, with Spain likely to remain the most popular European destination.
Of course, it’s possible that those migrants had been planning to emigrate for some time. Nevertheless, Brexit has surely encouraged many to speed up their plans, in some cases by many years.
Last week, Spain reported an increasing number of British citizens registering as residents. It would seem that, thanks largely to fears surrounding Brexit, unregistered Brits in Spain are finally getting their affairs in order. For many months, the British Embassy and campaign groups across Spain have reiterated the importance of being legally resident, and the message now seems to be working.
Nobody knows how many unregistered Brits exist in Spain. It has always been assumed that numbers stood at two or three times those registered – perhaps as many as a million. Whatever the real figure, it’s hoped the increase in legal registrations continues to grow. If you live here, you should be registered as a resident, filing a Spanish tax return and using a Spanish driving licence. Now is not the time to be living under the radar.
Our compatriots in Britain might well say we’re lucky to live in Spain. We are. It’s a beautiful, diverse and welcoming nation that offers so much and expects little in return. The least we can do is abide by their laws, and their customs, and be grateful that we chose such a wonderful place to call home. I hope I never stop pinching myself at my good fortune.
By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain