In the midst of what seems increasingly akin to a burgeoning cold war between the UK and the EU, one attention-grabbing story has been hitting the headlines: reports of hundreds of Britons fleeing Spain to avoid deportation.
As the account goes, around 500 British migrants living in Spain have supposedly left the country for fear of being “booted out”, some saying within a matter of days. “My application has been rejected and we are on our way home – my wife is in tears,” said Costa-basted Brit Shaun Cromber, who admitted to voting Leave without “realis[ing] it would come to this”.
A closer look, however, reveals a rather different picture – and one that would place the matter squarely in Britain’s hands.
To begin with, any Briton who lawfully settled in Spain prior to the Brexit deadline at the end of last year has their right to stay covered by the withdrawal agreement. Unlike in the UK, where EU nationals have been made to apply through the Settlement Status scheme, Britons residing in Spain merely need to register through self-declaration – an even simpler process than what we have in Britain.
On the other hand, Britons who came to Spain from the start of this year will only be allowed to stay visa-free for 90 days within a 180-day period, like in other Schengen states. As such, any of those who have found themselves fearing for their future are individuals who did not make the deadline, or even longer-term residents who have been unwilling to declare residency. Both the British and Spanish governments have insisted that there are no plans to forcibly deport any Briton living in the country.
Commenting on the story, Sue Wilson, chair of the “Bremain in Spain” activist group for UK nationals living in the country, noted that “overstayers should be aware that they are no longer EU citizens and will be treated as third country nationals… these rules are not new, and the Spanish, or any other EU government, are not to blame for the position we’ve been put in.”
Her thoughts were echoed by Debbie Williams, a Welsh resident in Spain and fellow campaigner: “While I am sympathetic to those who tried to make it,” she told me, “I believe that anyone who entered the country after the transition period ended should expect to abide by the Spanish immigration rules. It’s always been clear what ending freedom of movement would mean.”
Once you strip away the drama and incendiary language from these reports, you’re left with nothing more than a tale of the Brexit boomerang coming back to hit us on the head. But at the same time, the story also illustrates a wider, deeper point – namely just how much we’ve lost by giving up freedom of movement.
The right to free movement between EU states has been routinely pillaged by Brexiteers since (and before) the Leave campaign started. Politicians and tabloids spoke of “migrant workers flooding Britain”, invoking images of cataclysmic invasions and deluges. Aside from the inflammatory and even racist undertones to such rhetoric, it crucially ignored a major part of the story: that freedom of movement is and has always been a two-way street – one that Britons had been benefiting from for decades.
From gap years in Amsterdam to sunny retirements in Alicante, freedom of movement had offered Britons an unprecedented opportunity to enrich their lives and settle easily throughout the continent.
It’s tragic how little the British public was informed about the benefits of free movement, or of the variety of things they would stand to lose upon Britain’s departure from the EU. One viral tweet – capturing the surprise of a young woman’s Brexit-supporting parents upon discovering they could no longer access certain Sky content in Spain – provides a small but emblematic snapshot of this.
But ultimately, however it may pain many – especially those on the Remain camp – Britain chose Brexit. In 2019, the country was given a chance to vote out Boris Johnson and his hard Brexiteer aides, and yet it gave him one of the biggest parliamentary majorities in recent memory.
One can sit back and blame the first-past-the-post system, or look at how 52 per cent of votes went to parties supporting a second Brexit referendum, but that doesn’t change the facts on the ground. Johnson’s vision was (and remains, if opinion polls are to go by) the preferred choice for Britain among the electorate. His victory is just as much an endorsement of Brexit as it is a collective failure of opposition parties to unite successfully against him, which means that even we Remainers, in our own way, are partly responsible for the current state of affairs.
If a group of Britons can no longer freely stay in Spain and feel they have to leave the country to avoid being caught up in legal entanglements, the responsibility lies on Britain and Britain alone. We can’t blame Spain or the EU for not unlocking the cage we’ve built for ourselves.
Meritocracy, touted as an age-old British value, is founded upon the principle of giving to each what they deserve. As someone who campaigned passionately against Brexit, I am keenly aware of just how many didn’t ask for us to go down this path. And – regardless of political views – I feel sympathy for any Briton caught in a difficult situation abroad.
Nevertheless, in life, we sometimes make choices we regret, or have to endure those made by others against our will. It’s time that, as a country, we collectively own up to a decision made five years ago and accept its consequences – warts and all.