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Brits in Spain react with sadness, worry to Brexit

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Torrevieja (Spain) (AFP)

British retirees living on Spain's sunny eastern coast expressed resignation and worry over their futures on Saturday after Britain became the first country to quit the European Union.

"It is done and dusted, nothing we can do about it," said Kevin Cunliffe as he walked along the seaside promenade in Torrevieja, a city located about 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Alicante that is home to around 5,000 Britons like himself.

While Britain formally left EU institutions on Friday at midnight Brussels time (2300 GMT), it will continue to follow the bloc's trade and travel rules until the end of the year under a transition period.

Under Britain's withdrawal agreement with the EU, Britons who are legal residents in Spain before the end of this transition period will continue to have the right to live in the country and have access to its public health system.

By the end of 2019, Spain was home to 378,139 Britons, interior ministry figures show -- more than any other EU country.

Many are pensioners like Cunliffe, drawn by the country's milder climate and cheaper cost of living.

While Cunliffe said he was relieved he will keep access to Spanish health care after Brexit, the 76-year-old retired accountant who moved to Torrevieja a decade ago from Newcastle in northeastern England worries this policy could be reversed in the future.

"Governments have been known to break promises," he said, standing just a few feet from the beachfront La Cantina restaurant where mainly English-speaking elderly customers were eating breakfast outdoors in the sun.

- Pound worries -

The roof of the restaurant was decorated with several flags, including those of Britain and the EU which were placed side by side.

Rachel Tetlow, a retired secretary from Edinburgh who was eating at the restaurant with her husband, said she was already feeling the pinch from the drop, which has shrunk her pension when it is converted to euros.

She fears sterling could drop further, especially if London fails to reach trade deals with other countries following Brexit, echoing the concerns of other British retirees.

"We already eat out less, are more careful with our food shopping, buy cheaper," she said.

The pound has had a roller-coaster ride since Britain voted to leave the EU in June 2016, and is currently trading some 8-10 percent lower against the euro and the dollar compared to where it was before the referendum.

Along Torrevieja's palm tree-lined seafront promenade real estate agencies advertised one-bedroom flats in the city, which is set on a wide coastal plain between two salt lagoons, for as little as 50,000 euros ($55,000).

- 'Huge historical mistake' -

The low cost of property in the city has long attracted budget-conscious northern European pensioners but several area realtors told AFP they had made less sales to Britons since the referendum due to the weaker pound and uncertainty over Brexit.

Bob Houliston, a retired British diplomat and former EU official who has lived in the adjoining Orihuela Costa region since 2006, said he felt "a deep personal sadness".

Houliston, who served as a municipal councillor in Orihuela between 2011 and 2015, said he feared tensions could arise between Spaniards and the large British community in Spain if London starts treating Spaniards and other EU citizens differently now.

"We have been part of the family in Spain. From now on we are not part of the family in the same way," the 82-year-old said.

"I fear there could be a deterioration in good relations, personal relations we have with our Spanish neighbours."

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