Now Britain has decided to leave the EU, needless to say, the thousands of expats living in Spain are anxious to find out how Brexit will affect them. It was always recognised that living abroad in countries like Italy, France and Spain would become more difficult after Brexit; just as it will also become increasingly harder for nationals from these countries to move to the UK.
But what about existing expats – should those of us who live in Spain fear the UK’s decision to leave the European Union?
More than 4.5 million Britons live abroad. Approximately 1.3 million of these are residing in Europe. The most popular destination for British expats in Europe is Spain, which has around 319,000 British expats registered. Ireland comes second with 249,000, and France comes third with 171,000. Expats who moved abroad more than 15 years ago were not legible to vote in the EU referendum which was obviously rather harsh, as this group will be affected by the result just as much as anybody else, and perhaps more so.
The European Union gave member states the right of free movement. This means that an EU country cannot deny access or expel a citizen from another EU country. Therefore, once Britain has withdrawn from the EU, it could mean that British citizens living abroad become illegal immigrants overnight according to Dominic Grieve QC, a former attorney general.
However, nobody can yet be sure this will happen, because Britain may maintain some semblance of freedom of movement even after leaving the union. Having said that, these fears are not completely unfounded, as remaining EU states may revenge on British expats because they are annoyed Britain has voted to leave.
This week, the Spanish government said Britons should pay for their own health care or the bill must be met by the British government. Some expats fear even worse, and are afraid access to state healthcare could be removed completely.
Speaking in Alicante this week, Spain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said Spain would attempt to deal a where the UK pays for the healthcare of Brits living in the country.
At present, British citizens paying into the tax system use the Spanish health service on the same basis as Spaniards. But many others such as pensioners already have healthcare costs accumulated by British expats returned to the Spanish government under EU agreement.
We should also consider there are approximately 200,000 Spaniards registered as living and or working in the UK. Apart from the Spanish, there are as many as 3 million EU nationals currently residing in Britain, so whatever deal is struck will also affect those citizens – so hopefully we can expect a fair agreement that will not negatively affect either set of expats.
Expats and Property
Not unexpectedly, another worry for expats is how Brexit will affect their status as Spanish property owners. It is quite clear according to both the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights that no matter what happens, an individual’s property rights must remain unaffected. So no one can seize your property or question your ownership whether your home is your permanent residence or a second holiday home..
However, Spain could make it harder for British property owners by “punishing” expats and making us pay more in property tax for example. Though this seems rather unlikely when you consider the efforts the Spanish government have put in during recent years to attract more foreign property investment after the disastrous property market crash of 2008. The Spanish introduced the ‘Golden Visa’ investment deal in 2013 which offers Spanish residency to non-EU members in return for buying Spanish real estate. Hence to make owning a property in Spain difficult for the British as the largest foreign investors in Spain, would be rather like the proverbial cutting their noses off to spite their faces.
Could expats be deported from Spain and other EU member states?
This is extremely unlikely. Retaliation from the UK would mean there is strong political reason for the remaining EU states to not consider such a move. Mass removal of citizens who make a strong contribution to the Spanish economy would startle foreign investors and could potentially cause more economic turmoil in Spain, which is only just recovering from the last recession.
Expats are furthermore entitled to legal protection after Brexit. British expats living in the EU at the time of Brexit will almost certainly have individual “acquired rights” which is recognised by international law.
The 1969 Vienna Convention states the closure of a treaty “does not affect any right, obligation or legal situation of the parties created through the execution of the treaty prior to its termination.”
In other words, Brexit will release the UK and member states from any future obligations to each other, but rights and obligations attained under the treaty before Brexit will not be affected. So Brits who live in EU states can expect to have the right to continue living in Spain after Brexit, and expats living in the UK can expect the same treatment. But this will only apply to those who have started life as an expat in the EU prior to when the UK leaves.
Theresa May, Britain’s new PM has said she will invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty no later than March 2017. This will begin the two year negotiation period between the UK and the remaining 27 EU countries. At the end of the two years, Britain will automatically leave the EU, regardless whether deals between the countries have been agreed on.
Once Britain has left, the privileges of British citizens to live and work in the EU (and vice versa) will depend on whichever agreements are negotiated.