Brexit-voting expats in Spain wake up to a future of change

It has been a fraught start to negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom as talks on their post-Brexit trade deal kicked off this week.

Deep-rooted differences over fishing rights have again emerged as a potential major sticking point – with a British government minister, George Eustice, already hinting that the navy could be used to protect “British waters” against EU fishing vessels. Even a long-standing dispute over the Elgin Marbles, artefacts taken by the British from Greece’s Parthenon some 200 years ago, seems to be hovering on the edges of discussions.

But a world away from the officials wrangling in Brussels and London, there are British Brexit voters who live in mainland Europe. And things for them are getting heated.

“The penny is gradually beginning to drop that there will inevitably be changes,” Irishwoman Maura Hillen,  the president of the AUAN residents’ association in southeast Spain, which represents – among others – hundreds of expat British homeowners, tells Al Jazeera.

“If you look at the people [here] who voted for Brexit – which is quite a divisive issue round here, as you can imagine – a lot of them bought into this propaganda of ‘taking back control’.

“There was a feeling of exceptionalism, too,” Hillen says. That sentiment, she says, was based upon Britons’ argument that “we’re a valuable source of income for the local communities, so we’ll be the exception to the rule when it comes to immigrants”.

“So it’s not so much that January 31st [when Britain officially left the EU] … was a big shock. More that now we’re past that and into the transition period, the reality is beginning to bite – and that ‘exceptionalist’ attitude is beginning to go.”

Hillen cites a recent uptick in British applications for residency, “when for years people would float in and out without formal status”, as one example of reality starting to hit home.

“Then there’s a wave of [British] driving licences being changed to EU ones, as well as the realisation that you can’t just drive back and forth with your dog to the UK any more.

“People said for months ‘that’s not going to happen’ – and now it is. They’re beginning to understand they need to start to grapple with Spanish bureaucracy.”