Brits in Spain spooked by post-Brexit status

LONDON — Distressed Britons filled the pages of U.K. tabloids in the past few weeks as they flew back to their homeland from Spain, saying their dream of a life under the sun was over after Brexit.

They had taken the decision to move back amid fears of being deported by the Spanish authorities after the end of the three-month visa-free period, which came into force when freedom of movement with the EU ended on December 31, 2020.

According to the rules of the passport-free Schengen area, citizens from third countries like the U.K. who want to stay in a Schengen country for longer than 90 days in any 180-day period must either apply for residence status or a visa. If they fail to do so, they become an undocumented migrant, and face a fine or even deportation. 

As March draws to an end, some Brits in Spain without documents decided to leave the country voluntarily, worrying they might be forced to pack and leave on Thursday.

But the Spanish and British governments have been quick to stress that nobody is actually facing deportation on March 31, and that U.K. citizens in the country should familiarize themselves with the new rules and get the paperwork done if they want to stay. They could not confirm media reports suggesting that up to 500 Brits could be sent home by the Spanish authorities this week, and said the source of that figure is unknown.

Nigel Aston, president of Eurocitizens, a group that lobbies for the rights of British nationals in Spain, said many Brits had been living in the country without registering as residents — despite a Spanish rule that says all foreign nationals must register as such after their initial three months in the country. They will now have to legalize their presence but there is no reason whatsoever to suggest Spain would put them on a plane back to the U.K., he said.

“There is a good deal of scaremongering in certain parts of the British press,” he said. “We can speculate why that is — steering anti-EU feeling?”

So what should Brits in Spain do?

Those who arrived before December 31 are entitled to residence rights under the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and can apply to the Spanish government for an ID card, making it easier for them to prove their status. More than 360,000 British nationals in Spain have already done so.

There are also those who have missed the application deadline, failed to gather enough documents to prove their entitlement, or had their applications rejected by the Spanish authorities. In these cases, the U.K.’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) strongly advises them to apply for status and appeal any rejections.

The Spanish authorities are working through a backlog of late applications, as many people filed theirs close to the December 31 deadline. Coronavirus restrictions have also made it tougher for some applicants to gather all the necessary documents, leaving them in limbo. But the Spanish government is being flexible with late applications and has made it clear that during the period applications or appeals are being considered applicants will be treated as if they have full residence rights.

Brits who arrived in the country after Brexit are not entitled to residency rights under the Withdrawal Agreement, but can still apply for residency as third country nationals. The criteria, however, is tougher than when free movement was in place. They will need to have a registered address, be able to support themselves financially and have private healthcare. If they want to take up a job, they will also need a work permit.

If British nationals fail to secure status through any of the ways above, they can still apply for a tourist visa to extend their stay for a further three months. That will not be equal to freedom of movement — but will not lead to deportation either.

“We recommend U.K. nationals check the Living in Spain Guide on GOV.UK for any actions they may need to take and for up to date official information,” a spokesperson for the U.K.’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said.

This insight is from POLITICO’s Brexit Files newsletter, a daily afternoon digest of the best coverage and analysis of Britain’s decision to leave the EU available to Brexit Transition Pro subscribers. To request a trial email pro@politico.eu.

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