British people currently have the right to live, work, buy property and even access healthcare in other EU member states. However, if Parliament votes to allow the government to trigger Article 50 and to leave the EU, these rights may change.
Spain is one of the most popular destinations for British emigrants, especially among retirees. Around 130,000 British people over the age of 60 live in Spain, with their rights as EU citizens allowing them to access free healthcare, export their pensions (and receive the annual increments) and receive other exportable benefits including Attendance Allowance.
Elderly healthcare at risk
British pensioners living in Spain are entitled to free healthcare (to the same level as a Spanish citizen) through reciprocal agreements existing between EU member states that make their healthcare costs recoverable from the UK government. Changes to this arrangement following Brexit may leave tens of thousands of elderly British citizens that live in Spain without any rights to healthcare in either Spain or the UK.
Alternatively, the Spanish government may introduce charges to access their healthcare system. This will be particularly significant for the growing numbers of elderly British people in Spain who are frail, vulnerable and dependent on health and social care services.
Falling pound, rising costs
Whilst private healthcare insurance will be an option for the wealthy, many older British people living in Spain have low incomes and are reliant only on their British state pension. A severe decline in the value of the pound since the referendum also means that the state pension is worth around 2000 euros per year less than it was in 2015, making private healthcare even less affordable now.
A drop in the value of the pound during the economic crisis six years ago appeared to result in fewer British people moving to Spain, and also triggered an increase in the numbers returning to the UK. It is highly likely that during and post Brexit this will happen again, but on a much larger scale.
An ‘influx of returnees’
Making the decision to return is not easy, especially for those who have been living in Spain for many decades and have lost contact with their friends and even family in the UK. Whilst some will choose to return, others will be forced to return when they can no longer access the support they need.
An influx of elderly British returnees from Spain will create additional demand for already stretched health, care and housing services. Returnees may also be eligible for pension credit, housing allowances and winter fuel payments (to name a few) which are not currently exportable to Spain. The impact on the British welfare state may therefore be considerable.
A precarious position
Theresa May announced last month that she intends to invoke Article 50 in March 2017. However, with Parliament now expected to vote on the triggering of Article 50, these existing plans may have to be put on hold. The prospect of a delay means that British citizens living in Spain now face renewed uncertainty over what their future holds.
There has been some comfort in the form of an announcement from Spain's acting Prime Minister in June this year, in which he insisted that the rights of British expats would be protected during the expected two-year period of negotiation following a triggering of Article 50. However, there is no guarantee that a deal will be reached during this period, and should the UK leave the EU with no reciprocal arrangements in place, it would leave British citizens living in other EU countries, including Spain, in a very precarious position indeed.