British ‘expats’ living in Spain are not all beach-going retirees, most of them are of working age, and they are in agony over the uncertainty that still surrounds Brexit, writes Alastair Stewart.
The single best example of ‘cognitive dissonance’ I’ve ever seen is the 1990 interview between Margaret Thatcher and Kirsty Wark on BBC Scotland. Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Forsyth had advised the Prime Minister against saying “you in Scotland”. She was, after all, the leader of the whole country. The infamous result was the Prime Minister repeatedly saying “we in Scotland” as if she owned a house in Edinburgh.
With that in mind, I’m conscious of saying “we in Spain” when talking about Brexit, but I’m exhausted with the ‘expats’ cliche. It’s a popular hackneyed phrase that perpetuates the stereotype that all British people living and working in Spain are leather-skinned, beach-going expats who spend their days sunbathing.
That’s the narrative that’s formed in the heads of many Brexiteers – we’re a spoilt demographic of retirees who moved away from the UK and have no right to determine the course of our own country.
The Office for National Statistics, on the other hand, reports that two-thirds of the 784,900 British long-term residents in the EU are between 15 and 64 years old. Most Britons in Spain and across the European Union are actually of working age, a critical detail that’s often overlooked.
Elderly retirees are one part of the demographic, but not the principle core. It would be mad to suggest that the thousands of Italians, Romanians and Polish citizens in the UK are en masse retirees.
It’s a double standard that’s severely reduced UK political receptibility to credible concerns from British economic migrants across the EU.
Spanish friends of mine are living in a constant state of disbelief as to what the game plan of the British government is.
The rhetoric from Theresa May’s Government and Brexit-backing MPs is positively war-like when you hear it in a different country. Who, the Spanish ask, is the enemy here?
From what they can infer, Britain thinks the EU has mined the political road to a British exit from the EU. The British Government has responded by threatening a scorched-earth no-deal policy against ... well, itself.
In the middle are the hundreds of thousands of people who just live and work. Spanish honesty is rather refreshing if you get caught up in a Brexit cycle of despair. Successive Spanish premiers have publicly said that, in the event of any or no Brexit deal, British citizens in Spain will be protected.
Both Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his predecessor Mariano Rajoy understand that most Spanish people in the UK are there to live and work in the same way most Britons are in Spain.
The ‘expat’ cliche is taken so literally in the UK that it’s a sort of novelty over here in Spain. It sits alongside the socks-and-sandals and fanny-pack trope about American tourists. It’s got little basis in reality and can’t possibly be the underpinning formulation for a Government strategy towards the millions who elected to live and work abroad when free movement was in operation.
When I speak to old acquaintances back home, their first question is about the weather. When I tell them I want to return to Edinburgh, I’m met with mild-incredulity as to why I’d want to leave the sunshine.
I hold a full-time job and enjoy a Friday pint. Supermarkets still exist, and the buses run on time here. I want to return to Edinburgh for new career opportunities, not because I’ve indulged a four-year holiday.
We’re not spending 9-5 daily sessions at the local beach, and life and work are as normal concerns in Spain as at home, just as they are for millions of others across the EU.
There is no word for the unique agony of not knowing how the dice will fall, but ‘Brexit’ comes close.