Theresa May pulls the trigger: Brits in Spain and Spaniards in UK wait for negotiations to begin

BRITISH prime minister Theresa May has signed the paperwork to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, setting the clock to run on the UK’s exit from the European Union

Ambassador for the EU, Tim Barrow, will present the formal notice to Council of Europe president Donald Tusk today (Wednesday), which will officially be the first day of the two-year countdown.

The UK will now begin negotiations with the remaining EU-27, but despite anticipation on either side of the Channel, this does not automatically include trade agreements and how to handle movement of people: Article 50 is designed to start a process of settling debts, and does not cover anything to do with the outgoing member State’s future relationship with Europe.

This means neither side is obliged to discuss or try to agree any measures to protect Brits living in EU countries, the highest number of whom are in Spain.

Neither does it mean Britain is required to make decisions about the hundreds of thousands of EU nationals living in the UK, of whom an estimated 100,000 are Spanish.

They include a sizeable Galician diaspora who moved to Britain in the 1950s, and surviving Civil War evacuees from all over Spain, as well as adults of all ages who have lived there for anything from a few months to 20 or more years.

Spaniards in Britain have the option to apply for UK citizenship after five years of residence, and joint nationality is available, but the situation for Brits in Spain may be very different.

Firstly, Spain only offers joint nationality to citizens of its former colonies, who can apply for dual or full citizenship after two years of residence, whilst everyone else has to prove 10 years of continuously living in the country.

Additionally, many Europeans in Spain – particularly pensioners and those living in ‘expat belts’ – speak little or no Spanish, which would preclude them from applying.

In practice, citizenship requirements are not very demanding – a multiple-choice quiz on aspects of legal, cultural, geographical and political life, and a test to prove Spanish language ability of level A2, equivalent to a good GCSE grade, are the only requisites besides not having a criminal record.

This is not impossible to study for from scratch in two years, and many town councils offer free Spanish classes.

But not everyone wants to apply for British or Spanish citizenship respectively, and many fear that doing so could cause problems for them if they need to spend an extended period in their native country, such as for caring for a family member.

Spanish president Mariano Rajoy has said more than once that he is keen for British residents in Spain, and Spaniards in the UK, to retain full protection, and Spain’s general attitude to immigration and foreigners is very healthy and welcoming – as a country that has been both a source of and a destination for immigration for centuries, and already a cultural melting pot, most Spanish people’s view is that ‘all of us are immigrants if you go back far enough in time’.

Spaniards in the UK have not reported the same ‘one-of-the-gang’ culture, however – even those who have not directly suffered xenophobia or fears of restrictions to their healthcare, job chances and their children’s education have said they feel far less welcome now Brexit is on the horizon.

Reports in various media claim the UK may have to pay out up to €60 million in ‘divorce’ settlement to leave the EU, plus any trade agreements would have to be made bilaterally with each individual member State.

And any requests the UK makes will have to be approved by all 27 remaining countries – which, it is hoped, would make it difficult for expatriates in Britain or Europe to be used as pawns in a political battlefield, given that many EU nations will be keen to protect the interests of their own citizens living in the UK.

Also, multi-national firms based in the UK will now have big decisions on their hands: some have dismissed any thoughts of relocating and have even expanded and taken on more staff since the Brexit referendum, whilst others are rumoured to be considering shifting to the continent, or at least to the Republic of Ireland.

Meanwhile, Spain has its sights on turning Madrid into the new ‘City of London’ if global bankers bail out.

In light of Article 50 having been invoked, a slight drop in the sterling-euro exchange rate was seen in the early hours of this morning, with the pound standing at €1.14515 half an hour after the news broke.

This may reduce spending power for UK tourists, and expat pensioners, although since the referendum result holidaymaker numbers have not slowed down in Spain, and British investors appear to continue to be buying property.

Despite the fall in the pound post-referendum and any potential decline post-Article 50, homes in Spain remain dramatically cheaper than in the UK and typically much more spacious, meaning even if exchange-rate parity were seen – as almost happened in 2009 – British buyers will still be able to find excellent bargains in the Spanish housing market.

Now, Brits in Spain and Spaniards in Britain are about to play a two-year waiting game to see whether, as optimists predict, their situation is no different at the end of it, or whether they will face greater restrictions and paperwork.

Published ThinkSpain 29 March 2017

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