Withdrawal Agreement leaves plenty up in the air

The British flag is taken down from the European Council building.
The British flag is taken down from the European Council building. / AFP
  • brexit

  • Concerns remain over relocating with EU partners to the UK, going home for an extended period of time and the impact of Spanish citizenship

So far there has been little change for most Brits living in Spain since the UK officially left the EU on 31 January. It might have been a timely reminder for those still needing to apply for residency, exchange driving licences and register on their town hall 'padrón', but on the whole, for those living here legally or in the process of doing so, it is business as usual. Few will have felt much different waking up on 1 February as a non-EU citizen. In practice, virtually all existing rights remain unchanged up to 31 December 2020 and beyond if registered by then.

That said, there are many consequences of Brexit which some argue have been overlooked in the Withdrawal Agreement, especially those affecting people of working age and with EU partners. The good news is that organisations like Bremain in Spain have said that they will continue to campaign for citizens' rights as negotiations take place throughout the year.

Take the case of Hayden Burge, 49, a UK citizen living and working in Barcelona. His work in IT means that he currently spends a lot of time in Lisbon and in the future it could take him to a number of different EU countries. He is worried that the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) does not go into enough detail about cross border workers. He is concerned that extra paperwork could make him "uncompetitive" and lose out on contracts as he may need extra time to apply for visas, or even simply not be eligible for work as he is no longer an EU citizen. "If the [future trade] agreement does not grant continued freedom of movement of labour through the EU, then I lose existing rights that affect my ability to earn a living," he says.

Hayden is also worried about losing the right to take his Spanish partner to the UK should he have to move back for work or family reasons. "I have no clarity - despite having read the Withdrawal Agreement - if my husband and I wish to move back to the UK to care for my elderly parents, that [he] would have the right to join me and work there."

The campaign group British in Europe has published six reports which analyse and explain the Withdrawal Agreement. According to their interpretation, Brits wanting to return to the UK with their EU-citizen partner or family member have until 2022 to do so under existing EU family reunification rights. After that, those people will be "subject to UK immigration laws."

Cross border workers can still work in other countries as long as they return to their host country every day, or at least once a week.

Furthermore, Brits have the right to leave their host country for a maximum period of five continuous years, once they have lived in the original host country for five years, but any more time would mean the loss of acquired rights.

Theresa O'Shea has lived and worked in Spain for 30 years and is married to a Spaniard. "Never really in my heart of hearts have I been worried about my personal situation," she says. However, like Hayden, Theresa worries about the future. She had considered applying for Spanish citizenship before Brexit. She is now worried about the impact doing so could have if she had to return to the UK for an extended period of time to look after her mother. "Potential issues about obtaining citizenship never occurred to me before Brexit and I was always on the fence about it," she explains.

A recent post on the British Embassy in Madrid's Facebook page explains, "Dual citizenship is allowed in the UK. This means you can be a British citizen and also a citizen of other countries. You can apply for foreign citizenship and keep your British citizenship [...] Spain does not recognise dual citizenship with the UK." The Embassy urges people considering applying for Spanish citizenship to seek professional legal advice before doing so. While the information goes so far, there are other unanswered questions regarding eligibility for UK pensions and inheritance as a Spanish citizen.

Steven Craven, who has played the trumpet with Malaga's philharmonic orchestra for almost 30 years, worries about being able to continue to tour. While he is legally resident in Spain and therefore has no concerns about his status here, like Hayden, the cross-border nature of his job is a worry. "No one knows and it's this uncertainty that is frightening. For example if our orchestra is likely to travel on tour in Europe it's worrying to have to think I'm going to have to have a so-called blue passport."

Ben Cooper, who lives in Malaga province explains that he and his wife own a house, are registered as self-employed and pay their taxes in Spain and their son was born here. However, their business means that they work with UK clients. Ben is also unsure of the future. He says, "While I loathe Brexit, I've never been particularly worried about what it means for us living in Spain." However, he admits that he could be forced to make a "radical change" if the UK economy took a nosedive. "Demand for our consultancy services could do too," he says, concluding, "So it's a case of holding on to our hats for us, as it is for everyone."

Hayden sums up the current situation up for many Brits: "The Withdrawal Agreement doesn't go far enough."