The disconcerting caveat: ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’

karen_oreillySince the start of the ‘Brexit Brits Abroad’ project in July last year, Karen has made two long field trips to Spain, in October 2017 and January 2018. She has undertaken over 40 interviews, and numerous informal conversations, with over 100 British people living in Spain and representatives of campaign and support groups. Many of these conversations have continued over time through Skype, email and telephone. In the first of her posts reflecting on her second trip, she reflects on how agreements on citizens’ rights have been received by those taking part in her research.

Are you reassured?

British in Spain are somewhat reassured since the December agreement. There was a general sense that they would be mostly OK, retaining the right to remain and eligible for pensions and health-care. There was no longer the sense of panic Karen experienced and reported on in October last year.

Roger, for example, feels: “reasonably calm.  I would say probably about 80% sure it will be all right, but there’s a bit of me that thinks it still might not be”.

Gary said, in response to the question ‘do you feel more reassured now?’: “Yes I do, and I felt reassured right from the beginning when she (the Prime Minister) stood up and said “My first priority is to protect UK nationals living abroad but I’m not going to say what I’m going to do until I have agreement from the EU that they’re going to do the same.”  As soon as she said that I thought “Good” because if it had been Labour in they would have just said “You can all stay,” and they would have forgotten about us.

Trevor added: “after the latest agreement in December, when she agreed those things, it seems we’re going to be OK.  I mean she didn’t even mention residency permits, just “Anyone that’s gone to live and work in Europe up to a cut-off date that’s yet to be determined will carry on as before” but they won’t be able to go into a different European country I think.”

From reassurance to confusion

While people do feel more reassured about their situation, there remains a lot of confusion about what has actually been decided and what has not. I deal with some specific issues in this post ‘The December Agreement and other things: What do we know so far?’ But, while many were reassured, or at least felt calmer, others are still struggling to cope with difficult situations that are not easily resolved. Many complex issues remain unresolved, such as for older people, or long-term sick and disabled, who are having to think about what care provisions there might be for them, people with complex family arrangements, and those with mixed nationality families.

  • Robert, who is in his fifties and been recently diagnosed with a serious limiting long-term illness, is very unsure about his future in Spain although he has lived there over ten years, is fluent in Spanish, and has a permanent residence permit. If nothing else, the physical and mental effort required to think through what Brexit might mean for him now, and in the future – practicalities and emotionalities around obtaining Spanish citizenship or going home —are almost too much to cope with. Clearly, on top of that he has to plan for managing his illness, both financially and practically.
  • A group of older people I spoke to were anxious about all the bureaucracy and paperwork involved in gaining the right to remain, and relevant services and benefits, post-Brexit, especially as these things can feel overwhelming or unmanageable as one ages.
  • A woman in her forties is still anxious about her son, who she had hoped might be able to join her in Spain one day should he need to. He has mental health difficulties but is currently living independently in the UK. She needs to stay in Spain for work purposes – she cannot afford to return to the UK – but she is no longer sure she can always provide a safe haven for her son when he needs it.

These are just some examples which give a sense of the variety of responses people have given when asked to reflect on the current agreements re: citizens’ rights.

Overall, there seems a concern that Brexit is making people have to choose one country or another rather than keep their options open. In many cases, people had not even realised themselves that they continue to see Britain as offering a safety net. Now they feel (especially in Spain where dual Citizenship is not permitted) that the choice to commit to Spain is also a choice to give up on Britain.

Who is looking out for UK citizens living in Spain?

While people do feel somewhat reassured, they do not trust either the UK government or the EU to ensure their needs are catered for in the future. Many repeated the mantra, ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’. What was expressed as reassurance was, often, more a matter of needing to get on with one’s life: people cannot live in a state of panic and need to continually readjust their perspective on their lives in order to be able to move on. This implies that, rather than responding to external realities, they are simply learning how to go on under difficult circumstances. 

Author Bio: Karen has been a regular visitor to Spain for research purposes since 1993. She is author of numerous books and papers about migration (especially British emigration), including: The British on the Costa del Sol (2000); Lifestyle Migration (2009, with Michaela Benson), International Migration and Social Theory (2012), and Lifestyle Migration and Colonial Traces in Malaysia and Panama (2018, with Michaela Benson).

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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