After Brexit, Britons in Spain fear time in sun is over
For years, thousands of Britons made a home of the warm beaches of Orihuela on Spain's Costa Blanca. But after Brexit, many feared Friday their golden time in the sun could be over.
This 82,000-strong southeastern town that sprawls from the interior countryside to the touristy coast houses the largest British community in Spain with more than 13,500 enjoying the area’s 320 sunny days a year.
On the seafront in the Coffee del Mar, cafe owners Andy and Anthony were watching Prime Minister David Cameron’s resignation live on television after Britons voted to leave the European Union, standing behind the bar near a sign advertising jacket potatoes.
“The pound is already dropping,” said Andy Wigfield, 54.
“It will affect our business. Pensions will be lower, travelling here or buying a property will be more expensive, and we have to see what happens with free health access.”
Anthony Stonier, 49, added that Britain would have been better inside the EU.
“It’s better the devil you know,” he said.
“This is the unknown and for me it’s scary. We don’t know how Spain will react with us.”
As if anticipating this concern, acting Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy sought to reassure Britons living in Spain Friday, saying that for now, they would retain the same rights to live and work there.
– Health main concern –
Still, Brexit left many Britons scratching their heads.
Sitting on the seafront under a radiant morning sun, Patricia Hawkins was sipping a coffee with obvious concern, her husband and two dogs next to her.
“For most of us, the main concern is the health system. We are old people and we use it a lot,” said Hawkins, in her 70s, who has lived here for 11 years.
“Now we don’t pay but who knows what’s going to happen.”
Spain is home to the largest concentration of British nationals living outside their country in the European Union.
Officially, just over 300,000 Britons are residing in Spain, but many do not bother to register, with estimates suggesting between 800,000 to a million live in the country.
Healthcare is one of their biggest concerns, as many are retired, elderly and need treatment, which is covered by Spain’s healthcare system under EU mechanisms that allow them to get the same medical care as locals.
But what happens now is anyone’s guess.
Will Britain reach bilateral agreements with Spain about expatriates’ rights?
Or will British pensioners be forced to resort to private healthcare or pay into Spain’s social security system — a costly endeavour either way.
– ‘Pay consequences’ –
Britons started coming to Orihuela towards the end of the 1980s when it expanded to the coast with the construction of vast urban areas on what were once fields.
Now, it has become a messy urban agglomeration of villas, pubs, malls and real estate agencies where English is the language of choice.
With Brexit, “many will have to go,” said Dave Jones, editor of the local English daily Costa Blanca News.
“These are middle-class people without too much money who can’t pay for healthcare, and if the pound falls, pensions won’t cover their living costs.”
Robert Houliston, who has been in Orihuela for 15 years and founded a local political party to defend the interests of expatriates, was also pessimistic.
“We’ll pay the consequences in the United Kingdom but also the British community living here,” he said.
“The great majority are in favour of staying… Here they are not rich people with big yachts and big villas, they are old and modest but they voted with their head.”
And the local economy, which relies largely on tourism, could also suffer.
“This could destroy us,” said Carlos Campo, a restaurant owner.
“We live solely on British people for eight months of the year.”
But it was not darkness for everyone.
Walking on the seafront with her dog Bruno, Jean Law was extatic.
“I can’t believe it, I’m so happy,” shouted the 72-year-old who voted to leave the European Union.
“If I have to pay for healthcare, I will. But my life is coming to a close, it doesn’t matter. I voted for the freedom of my children and grandchildren.”