I made a life in Spain that Brexit would have prevented – Alastair Stewart

The border between Gibraltar and Spain is more contentious than ever following Brexit (Picture: Getty/iStockphoto)
The border between Gibraltar and Spain is more contentious than ever following Brexit (Picture: Getty/iStockphoto)
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After four years in Spain, Alastair Stewart says Brexit will narrow the horizons of future generations.

I spent four years living in Spain. Despite the cliche, I went there because an opportunity really did just present itself. I’d finished a public affairs contract and was deciding what to do next. This was the summer of 2014.

As so often happens, I met up with a friend at the Edinburgh Festival and, well, a few drinks later, I found myself exchanging emails with a teaching contact in Spain. The longstanding joke that I didn’t take enough holidays was trumped in one fell swoop. I was in Malaga on my way to El Ejido two weeks later.

I stayed for four happy years, was joined there by my now wife and held a variety of roles: teacher, freelance journalist and communications manager. I returned to Scotland in March 2019.

Why tell you this? Because I’m petrified that little bout of youthful impulsivity will now be, following Brexit, as rare as diamonds. In 20 years, I think it will be impossible to make the next generation appreciate that those opportunities were available to every British EU citizen – once upon a time.

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It is hard to put into words the absurdity of upping sticks on a punt and moving to the south of Spain. It was in the taxi from the airport I remembered Google translate was what counted for my Espanol. Impulsive doesn’t cut it. I’d had one interview, the advice of friends, and a well-plotted Google map. I was young enough to take the risk.

My then boss had arranged an apartment with two other arrivals. On my first day, I signed an employment contract. I was sent to the local police station to collect my tarjeta de residencia and número de identidad de extranjero (residence card and social security number). And that was it – I was a happy resident, all on the same day.

Bureaucratic nightmare

What was meant to be a brief adventure turned into something more defining and long-lasting. This reflection neither negates nor excuses my impulsivity just because I made a success out of it. Still, that opportunity – the ability to make that decision – was rooted in the ease by which it could be done.

As of ‘Brexit Day’ those wonderful possibilities no longer exist in the same way. I feel, honestly, that I would never have taken the plunge if it had taken a bureaucratic nightmare of paperwork.

Even writing that sentence makes me conscious that it sounds lacklustre, it seems lazy. Yet most Britons who live and work in Europe are of working age. The Office for National Statistics put two-thirds as between 15 and 64. The leather-skinned ‘expat’ with dubious and contradictory political views might be the cliche, but it’s not the fact.

Yet it’s the former that routed the pro-Remain campaign on the continent. ‘Expat’ was the most disparaging, most lethal blow to their argument. It is/was a PR campaign that stuck as a prevailing myth about a demographic of middle-aged people who gambled their fortunes on a sinking ship, who wanted to make a better sangria-filled life for themselves and so deserve what they get.

It’s an ugly legend to bust, made harder still by a core group in Europe who not only refer to themselves by the moniker but make no effort to assimilate (as ambiguous as that term is in itself).

Expats for Brexit

I encountered those who fell into the expat camp of staying indefinitely abroad and those who knew they were temporary economic migrants. There was the third category who would openly complain of the ghastliness of Spain, the superiority of Britain, and declare they voted for Brexit – while crowbarring into every conversation that they had no intention of ever returning. But they demanded their pension; they demanded their healthcare.

I have no regrets from my time living in Spain. I knew I’d always come home. But in retrospect, the most lucid memory – but one I can’t claim to have any unique insight about – is seeing first-hand the clash of mentalities over what Brexit meant. In many ways, it was a long-time-coming reaction to the loss of empire, with all the ubiquitous rights to language and having our way for several centuries. In opposition was the internationalist view for the country’s future. Britain has never had its post-colonial discussion.

The error of the Remain argument was it was more often than not wrapped up in a romanticism that was never explained as a relatable pragmatism. With no loss of irony, Conservative prime ministers conducted most of the efforts to join the EEC for economic, not ideational reasons. That pragmatism fell to the wayside after 1973 and that indulgence of romantic visions of the EU-superstate fuelled the ‘Brexiteer’ rage.

Few of us under the age of 30, and certainly not those who don’t remember the Cold War, can appreciate the geopolitical wonder of tapas with open borders. In 2015, a visit to the Gibraltar-Spanish border was the closest you could get to the spiritual dichotomy Britain and Europe now find themselves in.

I feel angry, angry because of the confusion of who has the mandate to do what, mad at the confusion and outright fear Brexit induces in family and friends. But I’m also sad – sad that I am (for the moment) the last of a generation to enjoy rights and liberties stripped away in the name of... the name of what?

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. He regularly writes about politics and history with a particular interest in nationalism, and the life of Sir Winston Churchill. Read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart