Sun, sand and Brexit fears for British expats in Spanish paradise: Margaret Evans

Whole swathes of Spain's southern coast have been transformed into little Britain in recent years, and as the Brexit referendum nears, the British expats who have been "living the dream" on the Costa del Sol are getting worried they might soon have to trade in their parasols for brollies, writes Margaret Evans.

Spain has largest concentration of Brits living outside of Britain in EU

An estimated 700,000 Britons live in Spain, many of them in the southern coastal region known as Costa del Sol, where the weather is mild and the living is easy, at least for expats. (Richard Devey/CBC)

It's easy to see how it might happen. You stroll down to the beach for a swim and then drift off to sleep while you dry off in the sun, perhaps with the help of a nice cocktail. It's past noon after all, and you're certainly entitled.

When you're startled awake by a passing Jet Ski out on the water, the voice on your portable radio is nattering away in English about the best place to watch the weekend soccer games. Disoriented, you turn and peer toward the bars off the beach and see a Scottish flag undulating in a heat haze, next to an arrow pointing to Paddington's down the street. 

The man on the sun bed next to yours, with tattoos and Union Jack swimming trunks, is chatting in a thick Newcastle accent to his wife who is ignoring him, lost in the pages of a Jeffrey Archer novel.

The illusion is full on. But you're not in the U.K. anymore, Dorothy. You are on Spain's Costa del Sol, whole swathes of which have been transformed into little snapshots of the United Kingdom.

'Living the dream'

One of the EU's main tenets is the freedom of its citizens to live and work in any EU member state. Some two million Brits live in other EU countries, an estimated 700,000 of them in Spain. That's the largest concentration of Brits living outside of Britain in the European Union.

Kay Leslie calls it "living the dream." She's been in Spain for the past 15 years, working as a hairdresser and a seamstress and says other Brits must surely envy the lifestyle, exchanging the old brolly for some sunscreen. 

Britons living on the southern coast can enjoy the sunny weather and the comforts of home, including health and social security benefits, British pubs and a community of compatriots. (Richard Devey/CBC)

"When they get older, they would like to live in a warmer climate but still have access around Europe and the easy travel that we have," says Leslie. 

EU citizens are entitled to social security and health care in the EU member states where they've chosen to live, and Britons in Spain are afraid they'll lose those benefits if the U.K. votes to leave the 28-nation bloc in a referendum on June 23. 

When anyone asks our nationality, we are always saying we are European.- Sandra Simpson, British expat living in Spain

"The loss of that interchange of services is one of the things we fear the most," says Nick Potts, a retired Brit who has lived in Spain for nine years. 

"I'm 72 years old," says Sandra Simpson in a thick Scottish accent. Simpson, like Leslie and Potts, is a member of the decades-old British Society in Benalmadena, a community just west of Malaga on Spain's southern coast.

"We've [the U.K.] been in the European Union for 40 years. And when anyone asks our nationality, we are always saying we are European. And then all of a sudden we are not European!" 

'When anyone asks our nationality, we are always saying we are European,' says Sandra Simpson, the secretary of the British Society in Benalmadena, a community just west of Malaga on Spain's southern coast. (Richard Devey/CBC)

The association has a clubhouse with a stunning view of the Mediterranean and predates the end of the Franco era in Spain. Some of the members kindly agreed to talk about their worries during a visit last month. 

While most now live here, the Brits say they're expats, not immigrants, although when pressed, they say there's little real difference. 

"We consider ourselves to be expats, not immigrants," Potts says. "It's a social thing." 

There is a hint of Graham Greene and the old colonial world to the group's comments and, indeed, the clubhouse. But it is countered by the very genuine feeling that they are European and that to be counted as such, Britain must move beyond the old days of empire. 

"We're part of Europe," Potts says. "The imperial past is well behind us, and we're part of a new grouping, and I'm very happy about that." 

Labour mobility threatened

Back in the U.K., many campaigners on the Leave side point to the high number of EU migrants from Eastern Europe in particular as one reason they want Britain to leave the union.

One of the concessions British Prime Minister David Cameron secured from his EU partners in the lead-up to the referendum was the right to impose a four-year freeze on work benefits for EU citizens working in the U.K.

Spanish seniors taking at a Flamenco class expressed mixed feelings about the possibility of a Brexit. 'They don't really need Europe,' said one. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

The British Society members, for the most part, say the Poles and Lithuanians so exercising people back in the U.K. are expats just like they are. Just not as many retirees. Blame the weather. 

And there are, of course, many Brits working in Spain as well.   

Johnny Langton owns a bar rather appropriately called Johnny's Bar. It's also in Benalmadena but farther down the rock face, closer to the beaches and the waterfront. 

Johnny Langton owns Johnny's Bar in Benalmadena. Only one of his three sons was born in Spain and he fears that the ones born in Britain will have trouble working in the EU if the U.K. votes to leave. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

Langton has lived in Spain for 22 years, but only one of his three children was born here. Now, he's not sure what a Brexit would mean for a son wanting to work in Spain. 

"How's he gonna be working here?" he asks. "He's going to be like a Canadian or an American. He's not going to be part of the EU, and it's a big shock for us." 

Langton can't vote because he's been gone from the U.K. too long. The limit to keep your right to vote is 15 years. He's angry about it because he says the outcome of the referendum will affect him just as much as Brits living in the U.K. 

Return of expats could be costly

Hairdresser Diane Keenan says the folks on the British Isles have forgotten about the sun-kissed Brits living down here. Keenan, another Brit abroad, also works as a translator and a part-time waitress at Johnny's Bar to make ends meet. 

Like so many of Spain's British residents, she'll vote for Britain to stay in the EU for obvious reasons. 

She has two children from two different relationships, and if the U.K. were to split from the EU, she'd have one child in and one child out. She also says Brits at home haven't really thought things through.

Signs of Britain, such as this Scottish saltire, are everywhere on the Costa del Sol. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

"They are worried about the amount of immigrants they are going to have in England," she says. "But if all the Brits come back, which they will have to, especially pensioners because they won't be covered by medical care over here, it will cost Britain billions. Billions in benefits, housing, fuel allowance."   

British expats or immigrants aren't the only ones worried about the U.K. leaving Spain.

Around 45 per cent of Spaniards under the age of 25 are unemployed. Many feel forced to move abroad in search of other opportunities, and London is a favoured option. There are an estimated 90,000 Spaniards living, working and studying in the U.K. 

A Brexit will also impact students wanting to study in Britain. Laura Gomez Espejo, 21, is a University of Malaga student who would like to pursue opportunities in her field of criminology in Britain and fears a Brexit could jeopardize that. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

Students worry that EU-funded scholarship opportunities are going to disappear.

"I study criminology here," says Laura Gomez Espejo, a 21-year-old law student at the University of Malaga. "But it's not a normal or common degree here. So for us, many opportunities are [in the U.K.] to get more experience." 

'They don't really need Europe'

Spanish seniors taking flamenco lessons at a community centre along the coast are more ambivalent. Pedro Munoz says if the British are so unhappy, they should be allowed to leave. 

"They don't really need Europe," says Munoz. 

Classmate Rafael Barcia disagrees. "I think they will have the pound, and they will always drive on the left side. That is very English, so they can't change that. But it's good being together in Europe." 

And on they twirl and stamp, clacking their castanets, while not far away signs advertise full English breakfasts and Sunday roasts in the Spanish heat. 

It's a little slice of the British world, mixed in with the Spanish. It's also part of a much bigger mosaic, a patchwork quilt of transplanted communities that have been growing and changing the face of the European Union in a complicated weave for decades now. 

Or was it just a dream? 

The expat life on the Costa del Sol is just one part of a bigger mosaic, a patchwork quilt of transplanted communities that have been changing the face of the European Union for decades. (Margaret Evans/CBC)


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.