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  • Writer's pictureInvestment Synergy Team

Brexit barriers leave British communities in Spain fading away as expats put off by huge visa costs

Once fish n’ chips and quiz nights in English made for a good night out in Arboleas.

Slowly, however, moule-frites and questions in French or Flemish are replacing this British ambience in a town which is fast becoming popular with Belgians.

This subtle change is happening because, according to anecdotal evidence from estate agents who live in the area, Britons are no longer moving to Almeria but instead are buying holiday homes.

Arboleas, a town of 4,586 inhabitants in Almeria, is a microcosm of how Brexit is changing the fabric of Spain’s British community, the largest in Europe outside of the UK, which numbers over 407,000, according to data from the British Embassy in Madrid.

Famous for spaghetti westerns such as the 1966 film The Good, The Bad and The Ugly starring Clint Eastwood, Almeria has for decades been a favourite destination for retiring Britons.

Not any more.

After Britain separated from the European Union, it meant that moving to Spain or other countries in Europe was now far more complicated for UK citizens.

As the changes brought about by Brexit become a reality, it seems that life for Britons living on the continental side of the English Channel will never be quite the same again.

From paying customs fees on anything ordered from Britain, to changing driving UK licences to foreign ones or applying for visas instead of just jetting to Europe as before, British expats find themselves grappling with a new, and in most cases, unwelcome new world.

British and Spanish diplomats are still trying to reach a deal so that Britons who still have UK driving licences can use them in Spain, after the deadline to solve this issue expired earlier this year.

The sticking point is the Spanish government wants access to the UK database of drivers, something that no other European state has demanded. Madrid wants to be able to hand out fines to tourists caught speeding or breaching other road offences.

“We are hopeful that an agreement will be reached in the coming weeks and remain fully committed to making that happen,” said a spokesperson at the British Embassy in Madrid.

Where once moving to Spain involved little more than booking a flight, packing a case and hoping for the best, it is now far more complicated.

Anyone who wants to work in Spain, must secure a visa which, if they are self-employed, involves proving they earn enough money to support themselves and dependents, presenting a business plan and paying for private health insurance. This business should contribute to the Spanish economy, ideally by employing local people.

Those who yearn to retire to Spain, must now apply for a non-lucrative visa. They must have a pension which pays more than €2,151 per month and €538 for a dependent or relative. They cannot engage in economic activity and private health insurance is also a must. Police and medical checks are also essential.

The so-called “golden visa” grants residency if a foreign national invests more than €500,000 in property or a business.

“Brits are no longer buying homes and coming to live here. Instead, they are buying holiday homes as the new post-Brexit restrictions are putting people off moving to Spain,” said Maura Hillen, a housing campaigner who advises Britons on buying properties in Almeria.

Britons still make up the largest proportion of foreign nationals purchasing properties in Spain, with figures from the National Council of Notaries showing they bought 11 per cent of all homes in 2021, ahead of Germans, Moroccans and Romanians.

However, behind this bald statistic, lies a more complicated picture of who is buying what type of property and why, said Graham Hunt, an estate agent based in Valencia.

He said many people are no longer buying villas to use as short-term holiday lets or retiring to Spain.

“At the upper end of the market people are buying the golden visa by spending €500,000 on a property and also buying a property to let,”

“Brits are no longer buying homes and coming to live here. Instead, they are buying holiday homes as the new post-Brexit restrictions are putting people off moving to Spain.”

Mr Hunt said another slice of Britain is disappearing from expatriate life: ordering anything from the works of Shakespeare to a pair of roller skates from British companies is fast becoming a thing of the past.

Tales of customs charges for anything from a birthday card to a book abound.

“My daughter ordered a pair of roller skates from a specialist company in the UK for €180 and when they arrived the customs asked us to pay €120 duty on them,” Mr Hunt said.

“No one is ordering from companies in the UK anymore because of the amount you are charged as duty on top. Local companies must be getting in on this niche to supply things that Brits want.”

In Camposol, a large estate popular with British expats near Mazarron in south-eastern Spain, Phil Gelling said that Britons are leaving for one reason: Brexit.

“I have (a list of) about 800 friends here and a quarter have gone, either somewhere else or back home. There are too many problems if you are not a resident. They have had enough,” .

Mr Gelling, 74, a retired project manager from Liverpool who has lived in Spain since 2004, said the UK’s departure from Europe presented British people with a litany of problems.

“I have a family but if I want my grandchildren to come and stay with me then they can only stay for 90 days within every 180,” he said.

“Then there is the issue of having to change your driving licence into a Spanish one. They still have not sorted that out.”

Mr Gelling said younger Britons can no longer come and study in Europe with the same ease as earlier generations as international educational exchange schemes were fraught with problems.

If retirees are no longer flocking to Spain in such numbers, perhaps a new breed of digital nomads are heading for the sunshine.

Mark Stucklin, a property expert who runs Spanish Property Insight, a website with advice for anyone wishing to buy in Spain, said: “It is difficult to tell who is buying what as the rise in purchases by Brits may be a pent up post-pandemic bubble.

“What I am noticing is that there are more digital nomads who are renting places and going back and forth from their own countries. I was talking to an online designer yesterday who spends most of his time here but runs a business in Holland.”

Spain last year approved a new Start Ups law which offers concessions to digital nomads. They will be eligible for the lower non-resident tax status of 15 per cent for four years instead of the 25 per cent rate for residents.

Aimed at British and other non-EU nationals, it will allow nomads to stay for up to five years during which time they can apply for residence or visas.

In France, Clare Price-Jones has secured French citizenship and, like others across Europe who have done the same, is slowly disconnecting from Britain.

About 175,000 British residents were registered with French authorities, according to French government data from 2019.

“My husband has not got citizenship yet so he has to face all the bureaucratic problems with trying to get that sorted,” said Ms Price-Jones, 70, who is retired and lives in La Manche, in Normandy.

Like many Britons living in France, she remains angry at the treatment – or lack of it – from the British Government after the Brexit vote.

“The politicians in Britain did nothing to help us when they were negotiating the settlement after the Brexit vote, it was all down to the particular European countries. We were abandoned,” she said.

Denise Abel might have expected her retirement to Norcia in central Italy to be peaceful.

The combination of the 2016 referendum, however, and an earthquake in Norcia took away her rights as an EU citizen – and destroyed her 16th-century home.

To be honest, the impact of Brexit caused more anxiety and feelings of insecurity than the loss of our home,” Ms Abel, a retired NHS psychotherapist whose husband worked in the petrochemical industry.

She said they lost their voting rights in local and EU elections and it seems unlikely they will be able to vote in the UK before the next election because registration for British expats will take time.

Ms Abel said she and her husband had been through an “onerous” process of tackling the bureaucracy necessary to register as residents which racked up a bill of €100.

Many authorities demand she presents her carta di soggiorno, which proves her rights under the Withdrawal Agreement.

“Even a simple traffic stop can involve a discussion of our rights under the withdrawal agreement,” she said.

Visiting family members have to be registered with authorities and the nearest office is one hour’s drive from Norcia.

As she was no longer an EU citizen, Italian authorities initially doubted if she was entitled to state aid after the earthquake.

Worse still, health authorities twice withdrew the couple’s right to state health care – just as Ms Abel’s husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

“I was once very proud of my country. The way the shambolic and duplicitous way Brexit has been handled, including the promises that we could ‘live our lives as before’ have been broken has meant that pride has been replaced by embarrassment and shame,” she said.

Investment Synergy - Brexit has caused significant economic challenges for businesses within the UK and EU - those that chose to leave the UK pre brexit to reside in another country, effectively ´left´ the UK for countries that have their own idiosyncrasies aligned with their country's cultures.

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