A Brexit field trip to Spain …

By Karen O’Reilly

Our research is generating an overwhelming response

I am just back from my first fieldwork trip to Spain for the project and I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the response from British people wanting to take part in our research. It is the first time I have ever known research participants to so willingly volunteer themselves for a project to the extent that we are struggling to find time for everyone. Despite the fact that a small number of people did tell me they are not interested in, or bothered by, Brexit, there is no doubt that many, many people feel their lives are fundamentally affected – turned upside-down even – by the process itself and by their anxieties about the future.

Brexit is affecting people now – financially and emotionally

First of all, Brexit is affecting people now. It is not helpful to say Brexit hasn’t happened yet. People I spoke to are certain that the fall in the value of the pound is a direct result of the Brexit vote, and those who rely on income, a pension, and/or investments from the UK have seen a massive reduction in the amount they have to live on. I met people who, while officially retired, are having to work a little where they can to boost their pension income, or are returning to the UK periodically to earn a little extra money. One of these was singing in bars in Spain, another was doing some freelance teaching in the UK.

Similarly, they are having to make choices now about how or where they might live in the future. I met parents of teenage children who have decided to return to the UK to finish their education because they don’t know if they have a future in Spain. If they decided their future was in Spain, they were concerned it might then be difficult to return to the UK at a later date. I met women married to Spanish men who had assumed that they could return to the UK at some point in the future but now fear they may not be able to – and the same applies to their children. As she continued,

We are having to decide now whether we are British or Spanish, and that choice affects us for the future’ Janet told me, ‘and, of course, having Spanish citizenship doesn’t make me Spanish, but I feel as if Britain doesn’t want me any more’.

The Brexit process itself is leading to crippling fears and anxieties, that at times felt like a sense of panic. I don’t need to be a mental health expert to know that too much anxiety is not good for people, and yet I was absolutely blown-away by the levels of anxiety people displayed when they spoke to me about Brexit, their lives, their families, their hopes and dreams (or inability to shape any), their fears, and their overwhelming feelings of frustration and helplessness.

Brexit is causing British abroad to ask fundamental questions about their identity

People I spoke to are really questioning their sense of who they are and where they belong, which nation has the right to and the ability to represent them, which nation they feel has their best interests at heart. Living outside of the UK, they see how others view ‘us’ as a nation, and they are not particularly happy about it. David told me,

I think in other European countries most of what gets reported is that Britain didn’t want immigrants…so that’s what, I think, EU citizens think about us’.

Later he talked about the frustration at having to choose whether to be British or Spanish,

We are being told, because we are British we can no longer be, or feel, European’.

Mary, who is married to a Spanish man, said in a high-pitched tone,

my Spanish friends here think we are all mad, partly to care so much about Brexit but also why we did it! They can’t understand it, they think I can explain, but I can’t’.

Above all, there is a strong sense that the UK has let them down. The Brexit vote has the potential to shatter their lives and yet many of those who live in Spain were not even allowed to vote. Once a British person has lived abroad for 15 years they are no longer permitted to vote in national elections or in referendums in the UK. You can listen to our podcast on this.


These are just some initial thoughts on my trip to Spain … there’s more to come in the coming weeks.



Karen is a Professor of Sociology at Loughborough University. She is also an ethnographer, a wife, mother, and grandmother! Currently she is driven by the wish to raise the public profile of sociology

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