Britons Living in Sunny Spain Dodge No-Deal Brexit Bullet

(Bloomberg) -- Spain pledged to guarantee the residence rights of British citizens and safeguard their access to health care as the government offered reassurance that they won’t be hurt in the event of a chaotic Brexit.

“The fundamental goal is that no citizen, whether British or Spanish, is left unprotected,” Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said at a press conference in Madrid. He spoke after the Spanish cabinet signed off on the decree protecting the rights enjoyed by Britons living in Spain -- assuming the same terms apply to Spaniards now living in the U.K.

Soothing the nerves of jumpy British residents on the Costas and elsewhere in Spain makes sound economic sense for the government. While more than 300,000 Britons are officially registered in the country, that number swells by thousands more when those who spend part of the year are also counted.

Spain’s attraction to British tourists as well as long-term residents also meant that of almost 83 million foreign visitors to the country last year, more than a fifth came from the U.K. In January alone, Britons spent 812 million euros ($925 million) in Spain while on holiday. Meanwhile, the U.K. is home to about 150,000 Spaniards, whose interests the government in Madrid is keen to protect.

The decree is a backstop that Spain hopes it will never have to use, said Borrell. His hope is that the U.K. parliament will still approve the withdrawal agreement with the European Union, a step that would automatically protect existing rights and make the decree redundant.

Quid Pro Quo

The government wants all Britons legally registered in Spain to sign up for a new residency card by the end of 2020 and expects about 400,000 to apply.

Spain will continue to offer health care as long as the U.K. government responds in kind and pays for it under the same conditions as it does now. Britons temporarily in Spain for work or as students or tourists can continue to use Spanish health services until the end of 2020 unless a bilateral accord with the U.K. comes into force before that.

Britons resident in Spain can also keep using their U.K. driving licenses for nine months, during which time they should apply to replace them with Spanish permits. Spain will continue to lump together years worked in Spain and the U.K. to calculate pensions and other benefits as long as the U.K. does the same.

The Madrid government had already stepped up its efforts to explain the impact of Brexit for companies, Spanish residents in the U.K. and Britons living in Spain.

Spanish Passport

Its website includes a page in English explaining what Brexit means in areas such as travel, pensions, financial services and education. British authorities in Spain have also been busy, organizing at least 100 events around the country since the 2016 Brexit referendum to explain how Britons should prepare.

“It’s very encouraging that the Spanish are being so positive,” said Celia Paterson, 70, a retired teacher who has lived in Spain for 45 years. “Brexit is a terrible thing and there are lots of people here very worried about it.”

Even so, for Paterson, who receives a Spanish pension as the widow of a Spaniard, there’s only one way to completely safeguard her rights in Spain. “I’m thinking of getting a Spanish passport,” she said. “In fact, I’m more than just thinking about it.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.