Expats In Europe Reveal No-Deal Brexit Fears: 'Everyone Thinks The Brits Have Gone Crazy'

Nicola Slawson

When Roger moved to Spain with his wife in early 2016 to take advantage of an early retirement, he had no idea of the chaos that was about to unfold in his life. 

Three years on, he is now fearful that his well-laid plans, and his freedom of movement, could be destroyed if the UK crashes out of the EU on October 31 with no-deal.

 “This is just the story of two insignificant people whose retirement plans are being casually – literally thoughtlessly – destroyed,” he tells HuffPost UK.

Earlier this week, Downing Street confirmed that free movement for EU nationals will end abruptly overnight on October 31 in the event of no agreement with Brussels.

While critics understandably were quick to seize on the implications for EU nationals living in the UK, there are concerns among British people who live on the continent that they too will be adversely affected. 

Some 1.3m UK-born people are resident in other EU countries.

While a number of countries, including France, Spain and Germany, with some of the largest populations of UK citizens, have included reciprocity clauses in their no-deal contingency legislation, not all countries have made their minds up.

“Other countries haven’t decided yet what our long-term status will be post a grace period. So, the treatment of British citizens in the EU (understandably) depends on how their own citizens are treated in the UK,” Jane Golding, co-chair of British in Europe, a coalition group of British citizens in EU, says.

“If the EU 27 see their nationals being treated badly by the UK government, they could act accordingly. Attitudes could harden – and even if they don’t, the EU  could simply adopt a wait and see attitude, which just means more uncertainty.”

So how do British people living in EU nations feel about a potential no-deal, and what steps they have taken to protect themselves? HuffPost UK went to find out. 

Nicholas Nilsson-Bean, from Oxfordshire, who lives in Malmö, Sweden with his wife and young child, is one of those waiting to hear what’s going to happen. He works in advertising and first moved to Sweden in 2013 for work. The family intend to stay long term.

Brexit is an “appalling mistake and a con”, he says, but it’s the prospect of a no-deal that he finds most concerning.

He says that although Sweden is being “very accommodating” for British citizens living here in the case of no deal, giving them a one year grace period to re-apply for residency (during which period they will be unable to travel out of the country until this is processed), technically their rights are to live there are being removed. 

“There is no democratic mandate for no-deal and it will massively impact not only EU citizens in the UK, but also us UK citizens living and working in the EU ... Additionally, I feel we are being very much overlooked. Not every British person who lives in the EU is an ‘expat’ retiring in the south of Spain. We are migrants who have families, work and contribute to our communities.”

Nicholas says the British consulate and embassy in Sweden has been very proactive in sharing information but the lack of clarity from the British government means that this is “often pretty sketchy”. 

Nevertheless, he has taken steps to protect his family, including applying for Swedish citizenship, but it can take years to process and certainly won’t be complete by October 31. 

Lauren Sian, from Manchester is also worried. She has lived abroad for for nearly six years in total and currently lives in Prague with her Czech boyfriend.

Lauren, who works in finance alongside travel blogging, feels she can’t make long-term plans with the uncertainty of Brexit, and feels nothing but dread about a no-deal. 

“I am scared that I will be separated from my Czech boyfriend as I only have a temporary residency permit in the Czech Republic and am only eligible to apply for a permanent residency in 2022,” she said. In the event of a no deal scenario, Lauren feels she may be forced to return to Britain without her partner.

She tries to keep up with the news by reading online British newspapers and checking government websites.

“The British embassy here also releases news here and there and sometimes they hold speaking evenings that are live-streamed on Facebook to allow people to be updated on the current situation for Brits living in Czechia,” she says,

Based on the advice given, she applied for temporary residency and has collected information and evidence pertaining to her residency in the event that she needs to prove the length of residency here.

“For now, that’s all I can do,” she says.

Dave Buttery, a brewer from Sheffield is also living in Sweden, but for him and his wife, who is Swedish, the decision was fuelled by Brexit. They, along with their child, permanently moved in November 2018 having lived there for three years previously. 

Dave Buttery lives in Sweden with his wife and children.

It was the anti-immigrant rhetoric surrounding Brexit that was the final straw for them to move back to Stockholm. He says Brexit has made him feel both “embarrassed and depressed”.

Unlike Nilsson-Bean, he is most worried about everyone back home especially their friends, as around 80% of them are immigrants from other countries living in the UK. 

“I have a right to stay in Sweden, I’m married to a Swede and can speak Swedish so I’m not worried about being kicked out. However I’m concerned that life might be more impractical for example having to retake my driving test, getting a visa to go abroad small things like that,” he says.

“However I’m really upset that people lives and rights were used as a bargaining chip. Hard working people, that help our country flourish left in limbo, people like me and my wife and my friends, quite honestly I find it disgusting.”

Given Brexit was a big factor in their decision to leave, they prepared as much as possible for every eventuality.

“Obviously when you have to sell your home, move your child nurseries and get jobs etc, there is quite a lot to plan and think about so as soon as the vote was decided we started preparing so we would move before the first Brexit deadline, with enough time for me to sort out my immigration status before anything changed.”

Floraidh Clement from Fife, Scotland has been in Berlin, Germany for almost two years and loves everything about life there.

“It’s diverse, it’s a capital city which isn’t too hectic, there’s plenty of greenery ... there’s plenty of work in my field,” she says. 

Floraidh Clement loves everything about life in Berlin.

She says Brexit has been hard for her peers in Germany to understand. “They think the Brits have gone crazy. I’ve had colleagues ask me ‘Why? Why does the UK think it would be better off?’ and I’m just as confused as they are.”

“Being from Scotland, people have suggested that my country will eventually go independent and rejoin the EU as its own entity. I’m not so sure on the feasibility of that, but honestly, I’m rooting for it.”

The local government in Berlin has already set up an application process for obtaining residency in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

“I’ve not had my appointment yet, but as a legally registered individual with a work contract, I know it will be ok. It’s encouraging but also quite sad just how much the local authorities have stepped in to secure our status here, compared to the government at home.”

In Vienna, travel writer Becki Enright has also found Brexit “devastating”. 

She has lived in Austria for three years and previously lived in Greece. Becki, who runs a travel website called Borders of Adventure, has tried to follow the twists and turns of Brexit so she can prepare, but it hasn’t been easy.

“I try to keep up with as many news articles about the actual situation and policies and discussions. Sometimes it’s very hard to keep up with because it’s constantly changing. On the other hand I’ve had to try and keep up with what the country I live in is choosing to do.

Becki Enright has been living in Austria for three years.

“In Austria, they have been very good at keeping us up to date with embassy meetings and the website. You can also get email updates and take part in Facebook live Q&A sessions. The stance is that Austria will honour whatever the EU is doing back.”

Becki says she has been very lucky as she has Irish grandparents so has been able to get an Irish passport, but now she needs to work out what this means for her residency, and whether it will reset to zero if she re-applies with her new passport.

Boris Johnson’s plan to withdraw from the EU on October 31 has given Becki a deadline to sort out these logistical and bureaucratic hurdles. Sorting it out is important as she doesn’t want to have to return to the UK.

“There was a never a desire to go back to the UK anytime soon but obviously now with Brexit, there is an ill-feeling. You can’t blame everyone for it because it is the political system too but it doesn’t make me very proud to be British, watching what’s happening.

“What has the UK become? And what is it becoming? It’s not just the political act of Brexit, it’s all the things around it that affects my decision to want to be a part of it again.”

Roger, who asked for his surname not to be used, moved to Spain with his wife in early 2016, he had no idea that people would vote for Brexit – or the chaos that it would cause in his life.  They made the decision after he took redundancy in his 60s and after working in a few odd jobs, he devised an early retirement plan for him and his wife. They chose Spain because of the lower cost of living.

A British supermarket in Spain.

The couple more closely fit the stereotype of the British expat retiring in southern Europe, but Roger acknowledges that others are in far worse positions. Nevertheless, Brexit continues to worry them and could have a big impact on their quality of life.

“While we are not fretting over stuff we can’t change, we’ve done all the things we should,” he says.

“Yesterday we learnt that freedom of movement for Spanish nationals in the UK will cease on November 1. The Spanish have always said they will mirror the way the UK treats their citizens. From this, I deduce that UK citizens will lose their freedom of movement in Spain.

“In practical terms, this means that, after my next trip to the UK, my passport will be date stamped and I will be required to leave the EU after 90 days and not return for a further 90 days. As a Spanish resident and property owner, I would find that inconvenient.” 

He says “laying low” in Spain until he can obtain permanent residency status is something he has considered, however it would be difficult to sustain given that (among other friends and family) he has a 93-year-old mother and an adult daughter with a life-limiting condition back in the UK.

There are other considerations as well, he says. Both the falling pound and the potential loss of affordable health care “blow our well thought out economic plan out of the water”.

“There are people worse off than us: those in work, those whose work requires them to work in UK and the EU, those with families. This is just the story of two insignificant people whose retirement plans are being casually - literally thoughtlessly- destroyed.”

Jane, of British in Europe, is not surprised so many people who live on the continent are worried given people have never been the real priority in the Brexit negotiations despite what both sides claimed, she says.

“It has always been about reciprocity. Theresa May didn’t accept the EU’s first comprehensive offer on citizens’ rights, and didn’t push hard for free movement, which is key for most of the 80% of us who are working age or younger.

“Instead she made a counter-offer because she was obsessed with reducing the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. It was at this point that the bargaining away of our rights and lives began.” 

The result was a less than perfect deal on citizens’ rights but it still would have been far better than a no-deal, she adds.

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