Spain's 'Little Britain' braces for Brexit

4 min

Orihuela (Spain) (AFP)

On the sun-drenched eastern coast of Spain, British retirees, workers and small business owners are bracing for an uncertain future after Britain leaves the European Union on Friday.

"It is worrying what happens now," said Karen Watling, 73, who moved to the Orihuela Costa in Alicante province with her husband after she retired from her teaching job 17 years ago.

Like many other British retirees in the region, dubbed "Little Britain" because of its huge British population, she is relieved that Britons already living legally in Spain have been guaranteed access to the public healthcare system and the right to stay after Brexit.

But she worries Brexit will hurt the British economy and further erode the value of the pound, which has slumped since the June 2016 vote to leave the European Union, cutting her pension once it is converted to euros.

"We have really lost a fair bit of money over the past three years and that could get better, that could get worse. We really don't know," said Watling, adding that many Brits in the area were already eating out less because of the weaker pound.

She and her husband are also concerned about declining property values in the region, in part due to lower demand from British buyers.

The couple sold their home in central England to buy a three-bedroom house with a swimming pool in Orihuela Costa and now "have nowhere to go back to" if life becomes unviable in Spain.

"If we sold here we would probably not get anywhere near what we paid for this house," Watling said, echoing the concern of other British retirees interviewed by AFP.

- 'Complicate their lives' -

Spain is home to 370,000 Britons -- more than any other EU country. Many are pensioners, drawn by Spain's warmer climate and much cheaper cost of living.

Tens of thousands more British retirees spend part of the year in Spain.

Orihuela Costa, a sprawl of dozens of large housing estates with low-rise pastel-coloured buildings 110 kilometres (70 miles) down the Costa Blanca from the resort of Benidorm, is one of the largest British enclaves in Spain.

Britons account for 8,000 of a population of some 28,000, according to municipal statistics.

Supermarkets stock British staples such as baked beans, news agents sell only British newspapers and pubs with names like "The Randy Leprechaun" and "The Celtic Drop" line its well-kept streets.

But after Brexit, Britons will no longer have an automatic right to set up home in Spain.

And those who only spend part of the year in their homes in Spain will face restrictions on the total number of days they can be in the country per year.

"This will complicate their lives," said Bob Houliston, a retired British diplomat and former EU official who has lived in Orihuela Costa since 2006.

"It raises a whole lot of practical problems for these people, and there are many of them," added Houliston, who served as a municipal councillor in Orihuela between 2011 and 2015.

- 'Less opportunities' -

Business owners in Orihuela Costa fear they will take a hit if fewer British pensioners spend time in the area.

"All of my clients are Brits, if less come over, that is a worry," said Gemma Cobbett, 36, who runs a beauty shop in the Playa Flamenca area of Orihuela Costa.

There were 2,193 home sales involving British buyers in the third quarter of 2019, the lowest level since the third quarter of 2014, according to the country's association of land registrars.

The British, however, still remain by far the biggest group of foreign buyers.

Mark Stucklin, the head of the Spanish Property Insight website, said he was "really surprised" how well British demand had stood up since the referendum.

"I thought it would be absolutely decimated," he said.

The loss of freedom of movement is the main concern for numerous young Brits who work in the bars, estate agents and other businesses in Orihuela Costa.

"I am still young. I had thought of going to Greece at some point but that seems more complicated now," said Mike Watkins, a 26-year-old bartender from Leicester, central England, as he sunbathed on the beach before starting his shift at a pub.

"I feel like I have less opportunities now than I did before," he added.