Europe Day on 9 May is a celebration of the EU community and all that it stands for. Brexit, however, has created divisions in this community and introduced uncertainty into the lives of millions of people, especially EU migrants.

The focus of Brexit debates have been primarily on EU migrants living in the UK. We have seen increasing numbers of people returning to their native countries as they are left feeling unwelcome in Britain and uncertain about their rights in the future. Similarly, British nationals living in other EU countries are also grappling with their identity as both British and European citizens. This includes up to a million British people living in Spain, of whom a large number are older and retired. 

‘[Brexit] has changed practically everything that we thought was going to happen, and also it’s changed I think, for me certainly, it’s changed my whole notion of my own identity as a British person… in a sad way, yes in a sad way.’

This quote from University of Birmingham research with British pensioners on the Costa del Sol indicates the uncertainty created by Brexit. One interviewee referred to having his European status ‘ripped off’ him without any say in the process.

He, along with numerous other long-term British residents in Spain, are furious about not being given the right to vote in the referendum. UK citizens are only entitled to vote in UK elections and referendums for 15 years after leaving the UK. 

Whilst the government has restated its commitment to scrap this rule in favour of ‘votes for life’, this is too little, too late for many British people already living in other EU countries. They feel ‘betrayed’ and ‘abandoned’ by the British government for not allowing them any say in a referendum that would have such a direct impact on their lives.

All of the interviewees continue to identify as British, yet without such fundamental voting rights many people are left questioning their identity as British nationals. 

As a result, some of the British people taking part in the research have been contemplating taking up Spanish citizenship. Brexit has left them so disenchanted with the UK that they have no intention to ever return. However, becoming a Spanish national would require them to relinquish their British nationality altogether as dual citizenship is not allowed in Spain. Whilst not an easy decision to make, some are left feeling that they have no other choice if they want to remain living in Spain as an EU citizen.

On the other hand, the Birmingham research, along with other reports, has indicated that Brexit uncertainty is triggering the return of British people back to the UK. Whilst the rights of more than a million British citizens living in other EU countries should be protected post-Brexit, as of yet, there are no guarantees of ongoing access to free health care, pension increments and other welfare rights eg, certain disability benefits such as Attendance Allowance.

Recent reports show that in the last five years, the number of British people officially registered as living in Spain has dropped from 397,892 to 240,785. This 40 per cent drop may partly be related to the unreliable nature of registration figures and new registration rules, but may also be indicative of increasing numbers leaving along with fewer people arriving. Whilst we don’t know for sure that they are returning to the UK, we can assume that many will.

Therefore, Brexit has fragmented a previously strong and cohesive British community in Spain. Like the British electorate, the community is being divided into ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’. Whilst some will take up Spanish citizenship and relinquish their British citizenship entirely, the majority of older British people in Spain retain a close allegiance with their British identity and are left reeling from the results of a vote that many of them had no say in.

Dr Kelly Hall
Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology, University of Birmingham