Back in the innocent days of the 1990s and 2000s, there was a discreet but active British migration boom. Retired and ‘pre-tired’ people headed en masse for the sun – Spain, France, Italy, Portugal. Bolstered by heart-warming books such as Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons and with Joanne Harris’s Chocolat crammed into their luggage – not to mention proper tea bags and Marmite – they made their way across Europe to run gîtes in the Dordogne, move in to Eldorado-style urbanizaciones in Spain or white cubes in Portugal’s Algarve. In 2005, around 2,000 Brits a week were moving abroad.
This created a large number of expats and the figure grew from about 4.1 million in 1990 to 5.5 million back in 2017. And why not? The figures reflect greater mobility, more wealth and, as with America’s ‘sunbirds’ – those who move from the cold north to Florida at a certain life-stage – the eternal desire for a stress-free, sunny lifestyle.
Many people benefited from housing equity windfalls and favourable exchange rates, not to mention cheaper properties and restaurant bills. What could possibly go wrong?
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The credit crunch and Brexit
Well, quite a lot. Latterly some of the shine has been taken off the expat boom. First came the credit crunch of 2007/08, when property became a less certain bet and some found themselves in negative equity. And now, British expats are faced with the uncertainty caused by Brexit, the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union on 31 January 2020. Particular wobbles are being felt in two of the biggest Brit communities in Europe: the 300,000 plus in Spain and around 200,000 in France.
Robert Hallums, founder of the online resource Experts for Expats noted a steep rise in enquiries from expats after the UK’s June 2016 EU vote to leave the European Union, with many concerned about their futures, particularly those on a pension. ‘Their money doesn’t go as far as it used to,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of nervousness and there are plenty of people who would like to come back to the UK but they can’t afford property here anymore.’
It can be difficult for people to discuss – possibly they don’t want to lose face. So the picture has to be pieced together.
Britons living in Europe: new post-Brexit information
So what do British citizens living and working in Europe crucially need to know, in a post-Brexit world? The Institute for Government website sets out the terms as follows: “British citizens currently living in the EU, or who move there during the transition period, will need to apply for residence status in their country of residence…(British citizens) will have until at least 30 June 2021 to apply, though the exact terms and procedures vary between EU countries.”
To what extent British citizens currently living in EU countries will be able to move freely to other EU countries now that Brexit has been enacted is still a grey area. It is anticipated that negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU will clarify this.
Meanwhile, the British government has entered into three separate agreements with the 31 European countries that accept freedom of movement, securing protection for British citizens living or moving to Europe until the end of the post-Brexit transition period. The Institute for Government details these below.
Firstly, the Withdrawal Agreement guarantees British citizens (who are lawfully resident in EU member states) broadly the same rights as they have now, meaning they can continue to live, work and travel in the EU. It’s important to note, however, that these rights would cease after a leave of absence of more than five years.
This agreement also applies to British citizens moving to the EU during the transition period, which is expected to end on 31 December 2020. Until that date, freedom of movement remains unaffected.
The second agreement, which mirrors the first, covers Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, which are not EU members but encompass freedom of movement as part of their membership of the European Economic Area (EEA).
Thirdly (and also mirroring agreement one) there’s Switzerland, which is not in the EEA but also accepts freedom of movement.
But the Institute for Government website adds that it’s important to remember that these present agreements won’t apply to British citizens wishing to move to the EU, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland after the transition period has ended.
The lifestyle myth
People often bought property with their eyes closed in the past, says Robert Hallums. ‘They didn’t have a safety net in the UK in the form of a property, and weren’t always financially self-sufficient,’ he says. ‘Plus, they were sold a wonderful lifestyle by television programmes.’
And sure, those lifestyles do exist. In some parts of France you can swim and ski in the same day, then return to your pretty stone hilltop house for a glass of rosé. But no one really wants a permanent holiday, and Brexit has been a big expat mood-changer.
‘Before, the British all wanted a pile of stones in a field that they could turn into a gîte,’ says Karen Booth, 58, a writer who has lived in the Charentes Maritime area in France for 15 years. ‘Now I’ve noticed they fantasise less and prefer towns and villages, with access to amenities.’ Those romantic piles of stones left many isolated, and can be hard to sell.
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‘Lots of Brits I meet are winging it,’ Karen adds. ‘For many, the “good life” has turned into the “struggle life”.’ And after the Brexit vote added another layer of uncertainty, many started to want to return, says Dave Spokes of lobbying group Expat Citizen Rights in EU (Ecreu). ‘It’s most difficult for those who are trapped in houses that aren’t worth as much as they paid for them, and they can’t sell.’
Expats often want to spend their final years in the UK.
There’s another human factor. Frankly, expats often want to spend their final years in the UK. ‘I hear that a lot. Going into hospital without the language is tough,’ says Karen Booth, citing a post-Brexit fear about healthcare, 70% of which was picked up by the UK Government and then topped up by the French insurance. ‘People here are now worried it’ll become all insurance, and they’ll pay thousands a year.’
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Moving back to the UK
From 2017 onwards, many expats started to give up and come home. Carol Peett, a property finder at West Wales Property, said she had a surge of enquiries from people wishing to move back. ‘Often they’ve had to accept a reduced price for their property,’ she said. ‘One client built a house himself, then sold for less than the build cost.’
Citizenship is a big issue, and some expats are trying to gain nationality in their new homelands.
Then there’s a trail of nitty-gritty niggles such as car licensing, duty on imports, inheritance and money transfers. Citizenship is a big issue, and some expats are trying to gain nationality in their new homelands, while others are exercised by the possibility of being locked out of the British voting system: Ecreu is campaigning for ‘Votes for Life’ for UK expat citizens.
Stay in Europe or come back to the UK?
Of course, moving abroad is never plain sailing. There’s always been trouble in paradise. But for all that, some people have weighed up the risks and benefits, and decided to stay put. Vicky McLean, 57, a widowed mother and nurse who lives near Limoux in southern France was planning to move back to the UK last year but found it was going to be ‘too expensive’. It made her realise, however, that she actually loved France.
‘There are so many good things here,’ she says. ‘The sense of community, the local organic food, the eagles, orchids and river swimming spots.’ And she’s found the French healthcare to be ‘wonderful’.
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Spanish property still attractive
Some estate agents have found, however, that financial uncertainty sparked by Brexit didn’t quell demand, at least in Spain. ‘We’re receiving an average of 2,513,374 website searches for property there a month,’ said Christopher Please of agents Rightmove Overseas. ‘It’s an indication to us that many Britons still see a future in Spain – whether it’s to live there permanently, retire or use a property as an investment and holiday home.’
Many Britons still see a future in Spain – whether it’s to retire, or use a property as an investment and holiday home.
So a lot of us would still like to migrate to the sun. ‘On balance, in many areas of Europe, including Spain, it’s still very much a buyer’s market,’ says overseas estate agent Trevor Leggett. ‘We’ve been surprised by how little effect Brexit has had and our research shows the two main drivers are still climate and value for money.’
Perhaps there’ll always be a place in the sun for us, after all – albeit with a little more circumspection along with the tea, digestive biscuits and Marmite.
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Expat websites and more
Check out these websites if you're thinking of moving abroad – or already have.
Experts for Expats Links expats to independent consultants on matters such as tax and pensions 020 3239 0271
British Expats Articles on everything from mortgages to healthcare. Plus classified ads and discussion forum.
ECREU Lobbies for rights of UK expats in the EU and vice versa.
Angloinfo Focuses on services abroad. Features how-to guides, property for sale and directories of English-speaking businesses and services.
Expat Exchange Global expat forum for an international readership.
Expat Forum Aims to be the largest community of expats on the internet with more than 175,000 members of country-specific forums.
The Smart ExpatThinking of working abroad? This site has calculators to help you work out costings.
Britishexpat Lifestyle ‘magazine’ for people living and working abroad.
Expats Blog Hand-picked selection of global bloggers on one site.
Vivienne Parker lives near Figeac in the rural southwest of France and teaches English to adults.
‘I have often lived abroad and, when young, lived in the Middle East,’ says Vivienne, for whom an expat life has been the norm. ‘But in any case, I’m priced out of England. I love my house, and have been here for 18 years, but it would only fetch about €170,000, whereas in the Cotswolds a similar property would cost far more than that.’ But she wouldn’t move back even if she could.
‘There are lots of things I love about living here. I live in a great village. The people are lovely and I’m very integrated. There’s no traffic, so I can get to places on time. The crime rate is very low, there’s no stress or pollution and it’s friendly.
‘There are other British people around and some don’t integrate, partly because of the language factor. In fact, French friends have told me, “You Brits all stick together”.’
She’s also noticed that a lot arrive with romantic baggage. ‘That goes pretty quickly. It’s cold in winter. Then they want to move back to the UK, to see grandchildren grow up.’
Her British neighbours became so concerned about Brexit that they applied for French nationality.
Are there any downsides? ‘The bureaucracy can be infuriating,’ says Vivienne. ‘I recently had to complete a form that almost made me cry with frustration. And the pension system is difficult.
‘But I’ve got a boyfriend nearby, and it’s bliss, really.’