Costa Britannia? Bremaining in Spain after Brexit

View of Málaga from Gibralfaro. Photo  Ввласенко, Creative Commons

Brexit has had a devastating impact on the many British citizens who have second homes on the continent. Mike Zollo explains the work of campaign and support organisation Bremain in Spain.

For my wife and me, as for many thousands of British nationals who spend time in Spain and/or have their own properties there, the Brexit referendum result was a nasty shock. We had bought our village house in late 2010, and it had proved a godsend: it provided a haven in which my wife could recuperate from her cancer and the consequent treatment, and recover her health and fitness enough to enjoy retirement. Some would call us ‘swallows’: we spend several months each year in our Spanish house, but for most of the time we are in the UK for family reasons and for my wife’s regular medical treatment.

As EU citizens, we could come and go as we pleased, but now Brexit has taken away the flexibility afforded by ‘freedom of movement’. Ironic that it is we Brits who are the big losers with the ending of freedom of movement, that major ‘achievement’ of Brexit. Now, we are limited to 90 days out of 180 in an EU country. Having to stay away for 90 days before we can return, we just have to hope the house doesn’t suffer any sort of disaster during the time we aren’t allowed to be there!

When we ‘discovered’ Bremain in Spain , it was reassuring to become members of an organisation dedicated to helping people like us to prepare for and cope with life in Spain after Brexit.

Many readers may be members of some sort of group which brings together those who believe that, notwithstanding Brexit, the UK’s future is in Europe. Bremain in Spain is one of the country-specific groups, and there are similar groups in France and elsewhere. Like some of these other organisations, Bremain started as a Facebook group and has developed from there. These groups provide contact with refreshingly like-minded people to provide a bit of welcome relief from the relentless tide of anti-EU propaganda and sustained gaslighting by the government, and Brexit ‘denialism’ from most of the media. However, there is far more to Bremain than that!

Brits in Spain

At this point I should mention that, according to the  Office for National Statistics (ONS), as of 2017 about 300,000 British citizens were resident in Spain; this figure has risen substantially since the Brexit Referendum, now standing at 380,000 according to evidence presented by Bremain to a House of Commons Committee. Of these, according to Spanish Government figures, about 37 per cent are pensioners – a considerable increase in recent years. In addition, there are over 200,000 Brits who spent between 1 and 12 months in Spain, many of them being‘swallows’ like us, dividing their time between Spain and the UK. In addition, in 2016, according to the ONS, British citizens made more than 13.0 million visits of fewer than 28 days to Spain, of which the vast majority were holidays; however, this number also includes family or friend visits, and business visits. Thus, Spain is one of the most significant destinations abroad of British citizens, whether for holidays, work or permanent residence.

I need to clear up the matter of what to call those UK Nationals who are resident permanently or part-time in Spain. A very commonly used term is ‘expats’, but most of us in the pro-EU/anti-Brexit community feel that the use of this word is inappropriate. The full word, ‘expatriate’, according to the BBC, has connotations of superiority, being aloof from or detached from the local native community. Hardly appropriate to describe people who should be integrating with Spanish society. However, a totally accurate description is ‘immigrant’, or its currently favoured form ‘migrant’. Suggest that to most such people, and they will be horrified, not least as a result of the connotations produced in the context of the policies of P Patel! Hence, my use in this article of the term now commonly used and which I favour: ‘Brit’.

Bremain flag wave, Nerja, Oct 2019. Photo by the author

Bremain in action

My wife and I joined Bremain in Spain soon after it was formed; we have attended a couple of Bremain gatherings in Málaga which happened to coincide with our staying at our house, an hour or so away. Then in October 2019 we participated in a Bremain ‘flag wave’ on the Balcón de Europa, a scenic promontory in Nerja. This was timed to coincide with the People’s Vote march in London, when around a million people marched to Parliament Square demanding a ‘final say’ on the Brexit deal. Our waving EU flags prompted much support, some of it vocal, from British tourists and bemused visitors from other European countries. Only one bad-tempered Brit argued with us, claiming that we had no right to question Brexit because we were rich enough to own property in Spain!

Then in October 2021 we happened to be in Spain at the time of the Bremain AGM, which, conveniently for us, was held in Málaga. Around 25 of us gathered, including the Bremain Council; between us we represented Brits from most areas of Spain. Most attendees were permanent residents in Spain, whilst we represented the ‘swallows’… Apart from the routine reports from officers on membership, finance, merchandising and so on, the main purpose and outcome of the AGM was to refine and reassert Bremain’s razón de ser (reason for existing).

In a general sense, Bremain in Spain campaigns to protect the rights of British citizens living in Spain and across Europe. Breaking this down into detail, Bremain exists to:

  • campaign to rejoin the EU;
  • campaign for the UK to rejoin the single market and the customs union;
  • hold the UK government to account;
  • expose Brexit damage (as West Country Voices does);
  • campaign for restoration of full voting rights to all British citizens in Spain;
  • protect citizens’ rights of UK nationals;
  • campaign for close ties between the UK and the EU;
  • campaign to reinstate full EU citizenship rights for British citizens; and
  • improve awareness of the group’s aims in the UK, Spain and in the EU.

In addition, Bremain is affiliated to various groups with similar objectives, principally as:                                                                                                                       Partners of European Movement UK (the only EU based group);

Members of Grassroots for Europe; and  

Members of the Make Votes Matter “Alliance for Proportional Representation“. 

As far as the everyday problems of members are concerned, Bremain provides information and advice on how to deal with Spanish officialdom and bureaucracy, how to avoid problems, and interpreting the rules and regulations involved with living in Spain. Additionally, Bremain has developed an excellent working relationship with the British Embassy in Madrid, which is very useful for conveying members’ concerns to the British government and for passing information and guidance in the other direction.

Bremain AGM, October 2021 Photo courtesy of Bremain in Spain

The AGM was another enjoyable opportunity to spend time with like-minded people, and of course there was a social element. The lunch which followed the AGM gave us the chance to get to know Bremain members. We sat opposite Magdalena Williams of Kent Bylines, and Mike Phillips who is also a regular contributor to Kent Bylines. Mike

and I discovered that we had more in common than our involvement in Bremain and our love of Spain: he had spent years in the Fleet Air Arm and knew some of the uniformed colleagues I worked with during my many years as a civilian lecturer and Head of Languages at Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.

Bremain MBE

In recognition of the group’s work, Bremain’s Chair Sue Wilson was awarded the MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in June 2021. The citation in the London Gazette states that “For services to British Nationals in Spain and the European Union”, Sue has been made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE). The statement of the British Ambassador in Madrid mentions Sue’s great determination to raise the profile of citizens’ rights amongst politicians and key influencers, and her collaborative approach. He suggests that “her work has had a positive impact on the lives of thousands of UK nationals.”

That accolade from the British Ambassador provides a very fair and accurate appraisal of Bremain’s achievements. As such, Bremain is very much the ‘go-to’ organisation for all Brits in Spain. Of course, thousands have residencia already, and while we were at the AGM, a member of the Bremain team received the news that he had been awarded Spanish nationality. To say that he was overjoyed would be an understatement. Full Spanish citizenship, of course, gives the holder full rights to everything provided by the Spanish state.

Brexit probably hastened many people’s plans to move to Spain and, equally, has caused some Brits to move back to the UK; in some cases, this may have been, for example, because they were unable or unwilling to arrange appropriate health care to qualify for residencia, but in other cases it may have been because they had actually been living in Spain ‘under the radar’, without conforming to the relevant administrative and legal requirements… ie as illegal immigrants!

We have met a few such people: notably a man we got chatting to at a petrol station, who confessed that his car didn’t have a current MOT certificate or the Spanish equivalent, the ITV. Indeed, although he had been driving his car in Spain for years, it had not been back to the UK for an MOT in all that time and was not registered in Spain either, hence no ITV certificate. Presumably, if it had insurance, it would not have been valid anyway, so we were relieved that the car had not bumped into ours! And what about the owner? It may well have been that his status was just as ‘illegal’ as his car’s. Given the havoc that Brexit has caused, and is causing, to so many of us, there is not a lot of sympathy for Brits living in Spain ‘under the radar’ from those of us who have played things by the book. It is amazing how many people have had no qualms about living in Spain effectively as illegal immigrants.

However, everything is different now. The Spanish road police are much more vigilant when it comes to vehicles. A couple of years ago at a random spot-check at Málaga Airport, I had to produce my driving licence to the police: everything was in order. Meanwhile a civilian official was checking my car details on his laptop: no doubt by accessing DVLA records, he asked if I was aware that the MOT certificate was due to expire a few days later. I was able to assure him that we would be back in the UK by then, and that the MOT test was already booked for the day the current certificate expired.

Bremain banner. Photo by the author

As for people: thanks to Brexit, ‘swallows’ like us are now limited to 90 days out of 180 in the EU area: we have been robbed of our freedom of movement. Now that passports are scanned at immigration control, the authorities can keep track of time spent in the EU. In addition, all passports are now stamped on entry and departure from EU countries, which was not the case for many years. Hardly surprising that an immigration official at Santander complained to us jokingly that Brexit was causing him RSI (repetitive strain injury)! Presumably, the reason is that the individual thus has an accessible record of time spent in the EU, and no excuse for overstaying. Hence, it is important for any Brits visiting the EU to ensure that they get their passport stamped when going through immigration control. British ‘swallow’ citizens may find the so-called Schengen Calculator and similar online calculators helpful, but their calculations may not have legal status. We also need to remember that the cumulative calculation covers visits to all EU countries.

  Status? What status?

Finally, a few words to explain the types of status held by Brits in relation to the Spanish state, as detailed in the Bremain Glossary of Terms. For many decades, Spain has attracted thousands of Brits wishing to live there, in addition to those who moved to Spain for reasons of love and marriage, or for work. Over and above those who have acquired Spanish nationality, most permanent residents have residencia – the right of residence in Spain. Since Brexit, now that Brits are no longer EU citizens, the green EU residencia certificate is being replaced by the TIE, the ‘Tarjeta de Identidad de Extranjero’, (Foreigners’ Identity Card). This is a biometric ID card containing the holder’s identity details.

For ‘swallows’, there is the NIE, the Número de Identificación de Extranjero; this paper certificate is necessary for the holder to be able to buy property, to buy a car or access utilities. It does not give permanent residence rights, nor access to the Spanish healthcare system. However, in our case it gives us free access or concessionary rates to many venues in Málaga province, since our house is in that province.

Jakki Moxon, UK Rejoin the EU

Whatever the status of Brits in relation to the Spanish state, there is no getting away from the huge loss to us all which has resulted from Brexit. We Brits are now mere ‘Third Country Nationals’ – citizens of a country that is not an EU Member or EFTA state. As such we have lost all the rights associated with EU citizenship, not least our freedom of movement. In so many ways, given the semi-isolation the government seems determined to produce, one almost feels like a citizen of a third world country… Thanks for nothing, Brexiters!