Overseas Brits feel abandoned by UK Government as they try to navigate the post-Brexit swamp, according to new research from Goldsmiths, University of London.
The UK may have finally left the European Union, but many Britons living in France and Spain remain confused and in the dark about what Brexit now means for their future lives.
Faced with a lack of clear information, unresolved questions and confusion over residency regulations, they feel abandoned by the UK Government, let down by the French and Spanish authorities, and have been left with a sense that they are nobody’s responsibility but their own.
There is now an urgent need for a clearer sense of policy direction to help UK citizens living in the EU through the post-Brexit “no man’s land”.
These are the findings of two new reports, Brexit and the British in France and Brexit and the British in Spain released Friday 6th March, which draw on extensive, longitudinal research conducted from 2017-20 with UK nationals living in France and Spain.
Between 300,000 and 1 million British people live for at least some of the year in Spain, while approximately 150,000 live in France, making the countries home to the two largest populations of UK nationals in the EU.
Nobody’s responsibility but their own
Interviews and surveys revealed that many British expats feel let down by the UK Government, and confused and frustrated by their encounters with French and Spanish authorities as they attempt to secure their futures, despite the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Crucial unresolved issues include the value of pensions and other income exported from the UK; continued freedom of movement within the EU; and the terms on which Britons in the EU would be able to return to Britain with non-British partners.
These uncertainties are compounded by confusion at the local level. In France, participants in the study reported that many local municipal officers lack the relevant information to give appropriate advice.
In Spain, UK nationals are confused about regulations, unsure where to go for advice, and sometimes given misleading advice.
Dr Michaela Benson, author of the Brexit and the British in France report, said:
"Our research highlights that the UK government, and those of other member states, were slow off the mark in thinking about how they might communicate to these individuals how they should best prepare themselves for the future. Even today, it is clear that any communication efforts are limited in their reach.
The effect of this for British citizens living across Europe has been a continued feeling that they are nobody’s responsibility but their own.
While they express anger towards the UK government, who they feel should have an obligation towards its citizens, they are often more sanguine about the efforts of member state governments on the grounds that Brexit is a British-made problem."
Furthermore, applying for residence permits has had uneven outcomes. Some UK nationals were found to be lacking evidence of their lawful residence and, in a few rare cases, judged—often on the ground of insufficient resources—not to be lawfully resident as European citizens, thus without a right to residence.
Personal circumstances such as chronic and terminal illnesses, periods of unemployment, reliance on benefits and relationship breakdowns, have also made some people ill-placed to respond to the challenges Brexit presents for their lives.
In Spain, these challenges were further exacerbated because the UK and Spanish governments (and UK and Spanish media) still tend to treat UK nationals as “long-term tourists”, even though the classic stereotype of the older, white, retired and working class British expat is well out of date.
Today, there are British people of all ages and backgrounds living all across Spain, including young people, fluent in Spanish, working in cities and bringing up children, explains Professor Karen O’Reilly, author of the Brexit and the British in Spain report:
Every kind of diversity that exists in the UK also pertains to the British in Spain. But this gap in understanding of their lives means that the needs of Britons in Spain are persistently overlooked, denied or dismissed.
Given the above, Benson and O’Reilly recommend that the UK Government should:
* Take proactive steps to provide better support to UK nationals living in France and Spain (and in other overseas countries), including reconsidering the role of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in supporting these emigrants and rethinking the services and provisions on offer through consular services, perhaps through the development of one-stop shops or surgeries.
*Build a rigorous knowledge base about UK nationals living in the EU26, including population scale, demographic diversity and geographical spread, that can inform and drive understandings of what Brexit variously means for these Britons. Knowledge exchange with the academic experts would be a good starting point.
*Extend lifetime enfranchisement to Britain’s emigrants, as per the last three Conservative manifestos.
In addition, Benson and Reilly recommend that:
* UK and EU negotiators consider options for maintaining the right to Freedom of Movement within Europe for UK nationals living in the EU, given the deep value many place on this
* The EU, its institutions and member states take into account the strength of the European identities for UK nationals living in the EU when considering transforming or extending EU citizenship (e.g. calls for Associate EU citizenship).
About the authors
Dr Michaela Benson is Research leader at The UK in a Changing Europe research programme and Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Karen O’Reilly is Professor Emeritus in Sociology at the University of Loughborough.