As an Irish man living in Madrid I find myself intrigued by Spanish attitudes to Brexit. Or, more correctly, attitude. Because, in this otherwise deeply divided country (left v right, republican v monarchist, secessionist v integrationist, Madrid v Barcelona, north v south) I have come across a single unifying opinion of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU.
“They are crazy,” I am constantly told. “Those stuck-up ingleses* are loco.”
The British will be left isolated, goes the common wisdom. The pound will fall. Their economy will crash. What about their agricultural sector? Exports? There will be tariffs. It will be a disaster for them.
These opinions are unsurprising, given how pro-EU the majority of Spanish people are. Here in Spain, membership of the EU is inextricably linked with the country’s coming of age as a Western, liberal democracy after almost four decades of Franco’s iron-fisted, Catholic-tinged fascist regime. Joining the EU in 1986 brought prosperity, ended Iberian isolationism and bolstered a fledgling democratic state. While Spain is still inward-looking and unsure of its place in the world, God knows what the country would be like were it not for the guiding hand of Brussels. Many Spaniards believe that were it not for European doctrinal rigour and the legislative and fiscal requirements imposed on it from Frankfurt and Strasbourg, the country might resemble one of the least unstable of South America’s democracies — an Argentina or a Panama; corrupt, administratively incapable, and always playing catch-up with the developed world.
But then, once the preamble on why Brexit is bad for Britain is gotten out of the way, my conversations with Spaniards always get down to the nitty-gritty: why they consider Brexit to be an unmitigated catastrophe for Spain itself. There are two strands to this discourse. The first is brought up without fail when I speak of Brexit with the PhD students and post-docs in my workplace (mainly men and women in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties). I call it the “dude, where’s my country?” argument.
Since the current crisis hit in 2008, Spain has turned from being a net receiver of migrants to an exporter of its young. To escape levels of unemployment touching 25% in some regions, hundreds of thousands of school leavers and university graduates have left Spain in the last number of years. Many of these reluctant emigrants (for the Spaniard is always reluctant to leave his native soil) have chosen the UK as their adoptive home. The 2015 figures of the United Kingdom Office for National Statistics give 129,000 as the number of Spaniards resident in the UK. A good deal of the these take up high-end jobs. Urban legend in Spain has it that the UK’s National Health Service would collapse were it not for Spanish nurses and doctors. I know from personal experience that anything from a quarter to a third of all Spanish scientific post-docs do a “stint” in the UK — London, Cambridge and Edinburgh are popular destinations. There is much anguish now among that cohort of Spanish youth who had counted on the UK as a place to go to for a few years to build up their CV before returning to their mother country. There is anger and bitterness that a huge, well-paid labour market may very likely be cut off to them. [I have also noted this attitude among the young Portuguese and Italian scientists with whom I work (there are 130,00 and 200,000 nationals from these countries respectively in the UK)].
“Where will we go now?” they ask.
The second aspect that worries Spaniards could be summarised as: where will they go now? Every year millions of Britons choose to holiday in Spain, a revenue stream that amounts to billions. What if sterling falls to the extent that John and Joan Bull cannot afford to holiday abroad and forgo the sun of Fuengirola for the drizzle of Dartmoor? Of late, the Spanish tourist sector has been enjoying a boom. Greece has lost ground as a destination of choice for the sun holiday. The terrorist attacks in Tunisia last year have decimated its industry. Turkey’s coup and the impression that the country is quickly becoming a police state has warned many off holidaying there. Where have these millions of northern Europeans been sunning themselves these last few years? Spain. But it would be a significant blow to Spanish tourism if millions of British people failed to book their holidays in Spain this coming January.
It is not only British tourists that Spain does well out of. There are over three hundred thousand British ex-pats living in the country. Most of these are retirees who have chosen to see out their days on the sun-drenched south and east coasts of the country. What makes Spain attractive to the Briton as a retirement destination (along with the climate, relaxed lifestyle, friendliness of the natives, excellent healthcare system) is its relative cheapness. Because of the favourable sterling-euro exchange rate, the British pension goes a long way in Andalusia. Or used to. Sterling’s free-fall of recent weeks is a game-changer for these people. What happens if Sterling falls even more? Thousands of pensioners will become impoverished. They will either opt to up sticks back to Blighty, or live out their retirements in Spain in considerably less comfort than they had bargained for. The simultaneous selling up by thousands of Britons in a relatively restricted area would spell a disaster for the real estate industry. It would quickly become a buyers’ market. How would the small towns and villages where British retirees currently live and spend freely be affected by the overnight impoverishment and/or exodus of these people?
Finally, if a “hard Brexit” comes to pass I predict another difficulty: the sourcing of English language teachers. At present a UK citizen as a concurrent citizen of the EU can just waltz into the country and take up a job as an English teacher. If the terms of Brexit stipulate that strict visa requirements must be met for a UK citizen to work in the EU then the free flow of language teachers to Spain from the UK will be, if not thwarted, then made more difficult and less responsive to fluxes such as summer holidays. Perhaps English teachers from Ireland can benefit from this unforeseen consequence of Brexit. Will it be a case of England’s difficulty being Ireland’s opportunity?
*99.99% of Spaniards do not distinguish between “English” and “British”. For them, the terms are synonymous. I have only every met a handful of Spanish people who can name the component parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and have even met people to whom the knowledge that Ireland and Britain are separate islands has come as a shock. In general knowledge about the geography, both political and physical, or what they refer to as “las islas” (the islands) is sketchy at best. I am tired of correcting people who refer to me as an Anglo-Saxon. (If people are in the mood of dredging up racial handles, I am a Gael or Celt.)