A Brexit fieldtrip to Spain – Part 2

About Karen’s research in Spain

I have been a regular visitor to Andalusia since 1993 when I did 15 months ethnographic fieldwork for my PhD and for the book The British on the Costa del Sol. I have talked with hundreds of British people over the decades since then and published numerous research papers and reports. I share with them a passion for Spain, for its culture and way of life, and have established some long-term friendships as a result of this commitment to my research field.

In October, I spent time in Fuengirola, Mijas and Alhaurin El Grande, talking to British people about Brexit. I had in depth, recorded, conversations with 16 people, and informal discussions with many more. I spent time at Lux Mundi Ecumenical Centre, catching up with old friends and new; attended events at Mijas Foreign Residents Department; and I spoke with journalists from the Sur in English and Euro Weekly News.

I will be returning in January and again later in 2018 to continue these conversations with British people there. Because of the overwhelming response we have had to this research, we also offer the opportunity for people to share their thoughts and feelings via any media they choose: social media, email, sending in photos or film, talking over the phone, or even letters will be accepted. Follow this link for more information about our Citizens Panels. This massive and passionate response to the research is evidence of the strength of feeling around Brexit.


The British in Spain

Officially 308,000 British live in Spain all year round, but there are many more (perhaps twice as many) spending much of the year there, owning a property there, living between the U.K. and Spain, or perhaps even living partly in a third European country. Also, it is important to note this population is not evenly spread; some parts of Spain have no British residents while others have a noticeable number. Mijas, in the costa del sol, for example, has a population of 89,000 and 40% of those are foreign. Among this foreign population are 12,000 registered British.

There are now many academic publications describing the lives of British people in Spain. We especially recommend Caroline Oliver’s book Retirement Migration, Russell King and colleagues’ Sunset Lives, as well, of course, as my own The British on the Costa del Sol.

Key themes

Some of the key themes that are coming out of our research so far are as follows:

  • Brexit is causing British abroad to ask fundamental questions about their identity
  • Brexit is affecting people now – financially and emotionally.
  • British abroad are a far more diverse group than are represented by the mass media, politicians and commentators
  • There is a lot of fear, anxiety and confusion, for British abroad over how to legally secure their future residence rights

My first blog addressed the first two themes in more depth. Here is look more closely at issues of diversity and confusion over registering.

British abroad are a far more diverse group than are represented by the mass media, politicians and commentators

Despite the visual evidence to the contrary, and despite the assumptions made by mass media, politicians and commentators, there are people of all ages and all family types living in Spain. Just to note – retired people have more time to get involved in care work and associational life, to visit cafes during the day, and to spend time relaxing during the day, and so are seen more readily by those who simply make a fleeting visit to Spain. During this field trip, I spoke to (among others):

  • A man in his seventies who has just moved to Fuengirola from France
  • A woman in her forties who runs a business in Spain
  • The manager of a large company in Spain, in his forties
  • A school teacher in her thirties, married with three children – all living in Spain.
  • A freelance journalist in his fifties
  • A woman in her thirties, married to a Spanish man, who first moved to Spain as a teenager
  • An 84 year old woman whose husband recently passed away, and who has been living in Fuengirola for over thirty years
  • An 18 year old woman who was educated in Spain but may wish to return to the UK in the future
  • And even a 16 year old on his way ‘home’ to London to study for his GCSEs

Each of these has their own reasons for feeling the way they do about Brexit. Some feel very secure and relaxed about it, while others worry about finances, tax regulations, health insurance costs or treatment, where ‘home’ might be in the future, whether they can continue to feel (or to be) European, what might happen to their parents if they are not free to move as before, and so on.

An aside on sample selection in qualitative research

Qualitative researchers do not aim for the people they include in their research to be distributed in the same proportions as in the wider population. That is to say, they are not seeking statistically representative samples. Instead, they aim to represent the range and diversity of experience relevant to the topic of interest. If there is only a minority of younger people in the wider population of interest (British abroad, in this case) this does not mean we overlook those because they are numerically of less interest. Instead, we see them as human beings with their own specific sets of issues and concerns (in this case, in relation to Brexit). So, our aim is to understand what types of people are affected by Brexit in what ways and then to ensure our research includes people of all relevant types. At the moment, we know we need to include more diversity in terms of age, ethnicity, health, and social class.

There is a lot of fear, anxiety and confusion, for British abroad over how to legally secure their future residence rights

The first ten conversations Karen had led to ten different rules or regulations about whether and how to register as a resident. This is despite the best efforts of some organisations and groups to give clear advice. The fact is, the situation is not a simple one and depends on individual circumstances. Generally people are being advised to ‘get legal’, but what this means in practice is unclear. But people are getting mixed messages. Even the Consul for Andalusia and the Canary Islands said at a meeting to launch a new support web site, said the consulate themselves find it difficult to advise people as:

‘we don’t know anything yet… nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’

I also overheard a council official advise a woman of pension age, who lives partly in the U.K and partly in Spain, to decide where she wishes to be domiciled for health reasons (that is to say, to choose which health service she wishes to rely on, British or Spanish) and then to register as a resident in Spain if she preferred Spain. This is counter to the official advice, which is to ‘get legal’ (see below).

Later, at the same meeting a lawyer advised a British man, who didn’t know whether or not to register as a resident in Spain, to choose where he wished to be domiciled for tax purposes.

This is not exactly legally wrong or misleading advice, but it does run counter to the message to become legal to assure one’s future residence status. And if the agreement that is eventually made applies only to those currently (at whatever cut-off date) registered as resident in Spain, then those people above may make decisions that are not in their own best interests.

Furthermore, it is possible that any agreement applies only to those with permanent residence, and that is only available to anyone who has been resident for five years.

The truth is, no one really knows what is going to happen, and this is what is causing so much confusion and anxiety.

Denise’s example

Denise has a Residence Permit since 2013 (so, for four years). She can apply for a permanent permit (Permanencia) when she has had her temporary permit for five years, but she will need then to prove she has enough to income or savings to support herself. She has a basic state pension, and asks, ‘what if they decide it is only those on permanencia who can stay, and they say my pension is not worth enough because with the fall in the pound it has gone down in value about a quarter. To be honest, I don’t have enough to live on any more’. Denise is very fearful she will have no choice but to return to the UK, and yet she has no home or family to go back to.

Registering, the Padron, and Residencia: the facts

Our advice is to check with a lawyer, with the foreign residents’ department of the Town Hall (Ayuntamiento) where you reside, the Embassy or Consulate, and/or the UK UK Government web site. Do not rely solely on the advice of friends and neighbours.

All those with a second home in Spain, with a rental contract in Spain, or living there even part-time should register on the local town hall register, the Padron (this is known as empadronamiento, and is not the same as Residencia or residence). The Padron lets the town hall know you are there and means they can claim money for you, for services the Town Hall provides. It is usually necessary to renew this registration from time to time, but the situation varies by town and by circumstance. In any case, the Government requires Town Halls to update this information every five years. In some towns empadronamiento even comes with local benefits.

Anyone resident in Spain for more than 3 months consecutively or for more than 186 days in one calendar year is obliged to register with the police as resident. This is known as Residencia. You will be given a temporary residence permit in the first instance, and after five years you should reapply and then you will be granted permanent residence. To obtain Residencia you will need to show that you have social security or health insurance and enough money to live on. But check with your own Police Station as their requirements might differ.

This as much as we know about the situation in Spain. Things are, indeed, confusing, ever-changing, and unpredictable.

To be continued……


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

2 Responses

  1. shelagh says:

    I doubt very much if there are any regions of Spain with No British. Because the areas aren’t in the Costa Culture, we tend to be absorbed, then overlooked by journalists when they are writing articles It is far easier to work with the masses (No offence, just meant in terms of numbers) on the Costas, than drag yourself out to Extremadura, one of the Castilles or Navarre to meet one couple living miles down a dirt track. But we are out here and we do have opinions and we will be affected too.

    • karenoreilly says:

      Thanks for this Shelagh. Luckily we are managing to include people in remote areas by talking to them via Skype or FaceTime. We would love to include your opinions so please get in touch with one of the team. Karen

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