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U.K. Expats In Spain Nervously Watch Brexit Balloting

By Lauren Frayer | NPR
Thursday, June 23, 2016

The local radio broadcasts are in English, reporting British news. Traditional English pubs fly the Union Jack and serve pints of ale. If you're hungry, there are fish and chips shops, and full English breakfasts with heaps of baked beans. Supermarkets stock Yorkshire tea and Marmite. Feeling sporty? Head over to the cricket club, or go lawn bowling.

You might be fooled into thinking this is Britain. But it's Spain's Mediterranean coast — home to the largest U.K. expat community in Europe. At least 13 million Britons visit Spain each year, and hundreds of thousands have settled here.

Immigration has been a big part of the debate in today's European Union referendum in Britain. The EU allows people to travel, live and work freely throughout its 28 countries. That's allowed hundreds of thousands of immigrants to settle in Britain. At the same time, about as many Britons have fanned out across the rest of Europe. Many of them are sun-seeking retirees.

"There are oodles of golf courses, and of course we've got the beaches, and the sea life," says Nigel Hopkins, a choir director who moved from England six years ago, and now conducts the Melody Makers, an all-British choir on Spain's Costa Blanca. "It's cheaper to eat out than eat at home. It's everything you could wish for, basically."

As EU citizens, expats like Hopkins can draw their U.K. state pensions, with annual cost-of-living adjustments, and get public health care through the Spanish system. But if Britain exits the EU, that could change.

"It'd be a nightmare for us. We'd lose our healthcare," says fellow Briton Martin Foulcer, between games at La Siesta Bowls Club, a British lawn bowling club in Torrevieja, on the coast. "If we come out, our houses will be halved in price as well. It'll cost us thousands. And our pensions could be frozen."

Like many Britons abroad, Foulcer cast a postal ballot in advance, in favor of remaining in the E.U. He admits he'd vote differently if he still lived in England. He thinks there are too many immigrants there.

Fact is, the EU has created lots of economic migrants. Why not move south to Spain, where life is cheaper, and your pension buys more?

In many neighborhoods on Spain's Mediterranean coast, British retirees live alongside half a dozen other nationalities, mostly from northern, sun-starved Europe — Germans, Dutch, Norwegians. Such arrangements are a legacy of the EU, with its free movement of people and globalization.

But Brexit could force the Britons here to uproot and retreat.

"If the [British] pound goes down a lot, we'll probably have to go home," says Steve Perry, who retired to Benidorm, a resort town in Spain's Alicante province, 10 years ago.

"The airfares are going to go up as well. Nobody's saying this. All they're worried about back home is immigration," says Perry's wife Elaine.

U.K. expats feel left out of the debate, and they're a sizable group. If a large portion of the 2.2 million British expats in Europe were to pack up and go home, it could hurt their host countries' economies — and strain the U.K. health service, since many of them are elderly and need lots of care.

About half of U.K. expats abroad registered to vote in Thursday's EU referendum. That's three times as many as voted in the last UK general election.

But many are frustrated because they're ineligible. U.K. electoral rules say Britons who've lived abroad more than 15 years cannot vote. A British World War II veteran who's long lived in Italy, along with a U.K. lawyer in Brussels, sued to overturn those rules, arguing that the EU referendum profoundly affects Britons who live in Europe. They lost.

"It's being decided [instead] by people who don't go out of England, who've got a mentality of 'Little Britain,'" says Jan Holden, who has lived on Spain's Costa Blanca for 16 years, and thus is ineligible to vote. "For us, we're Europeans. I'm an expat. My life is very tied in here, and I dread to think if I'm forced to go back, because there's no health care or social services for us."

Spain, for its part, desperately wants to keep them.

Spaniards are among the strongest E.U. opponents of the Brexit. They've seen how the union has boosted economic development in their own country, and they have loyalty to it. A recent survey shows 74-percent of Spaniards want more integration with Europe, not less.

Many of the foreigners who've moved to Spain under EU rules aren't competing for local jobs, because they're retired. Instead, they've been a boon to the local economy, where unemployment tops 20-percent.

"I eke out a living thanks to them," says Carmelo Varas, a realtor in Torrevieja. "Last year, I sold about 100 houses, and 98 of them were to foreigners."

He says many of his clients are waiting for the results of today's referendum, before they invest here. Like everyone on this coast, Varas watches exchange rates daily. If the British pound falls, so does his business.

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