A referendum road trip among Welsh expats on Costa Blanca

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Benidorm man with Wales tattoo

How will the result of the EU referendum in the UK affect Welsh expats living in Spain?

Many have a vote; those who have been living there for more than 15 years do not.

But vote or not, what will a decision to leave or stay in the EU mean to them?

I took a road trip around the Costa Blanca to find out.

There is an assumption that UK citizens living permanently in Spain are retired.

It is more complex than that. There are many that retired there more than 20 years ago, along with recent retirees and those who are no longer working but too young to collect their state pension.

There is also a growing number of middle-aged people working in Spain. Not just working in bars, as builders and shop owners but also increasingly with the digital revolution, people of many professions can work remotely in businesses all over the world.

So what is the pull? The biggest is lifestyle. Not just sea and Sangria but a more relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere, they told me.


If UK citizens are living and working in Spain and pay their taxes they are entitled to full use of the Spanish health care system.

Amongst the many expats I have met in the last few days, I heard only praise for the Spanish health service - they have had new knees, hips, treatment for complex illnesses and also babies.

If UK citizens are entitled to a UK state pension, they get that in Spain and at the moment it is index-linked to inflation.

Expat pensioners also get free health care and the UK Government pays the Spanish Government £3,000 a year for each UK OAP.


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Tony and Tracey Jones run a bar in Benidorm - they are worried about the impact of Brexit

TJ's karaoke bar just off Avenida de Mediterraneo in the middle of Benidorm was set up by Tony and Tracey Jones from Swansea seven years ago.

In the bar, the Welsh flags and Brains beer mats are a reminder of home and most of the customers while I was there were holidaymakers from Port Talbot.

Back home Tony was working as a builder and Tracey worked for 25 years as a taxi driver.

It was the sun and the more relaxed working atmosphere that attracted them and they say they will never go back to live in Wales. Their daughter Katie was 21 when she followed them out and she too never expects to return to live.

Katie gave birth to her son Amir, now aged two, in Alicante hospital. He was only 900 grams when he was born, was in intensive care and spent many weeks in hospital.

Because Katie and her Moroccan partner have been working and paying tax in Spain, Amir's care was free, as will be his education when he starts school.

Amir is now learning to speak Spanish, Arabic and English.

Katie is not sure whether she will vote but is happy in Spain.

"If I could have done this a long time ago, I would've done," she said. "I class myself as Spanish as well, we've got British passports. I've got my husband-to-be and we enjoy living here."


Media caption,

Members of the Costa Blanca male voice choir give their views on the referendum

The Costa Blanca male voice choir is a social gathering for Welsh expats from around the coast, which meets in the back room of a bar at Teulada, half an hour's drive north of Benidorm.

Jeff Thomas and Alun Price came for the sun and lifestyle and will stay on the Costa Blanca whatever happens. But they have worries over arrangements for health and the effect on the exchange rate and pensions.

Alun said: "They would possibly freeze pensions. It's the unknown factors we're concerned about, there are so many conflicting reports coming from both sides."

Jeff added: "And of course our residential status - will we be illegal immigrants? There are lots of issues."

Gareth Jones is voting to stay in "for selfish reasons" but would vote Brexit if he was back in Wales.

"All the four countries would be better off - I think we can cope, there'll be a blip but in the end it will even itself out."

Gareth Pugh said: "A lot of people I speak to in the UK are unsure, but I've got a feeling people prefer the devil they know.

"It's more fear of the unknown, in terms of trade deals, world conflict, that sort of thing."


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Some of those playing at the El Cid bowls club give their views

Drive inland from Gata de Gorgos and Ondarra and you come to the village of Benidoleig.

Traditionally it is a farming area - vines, almonds, cherries and oranges fill the valley.

But increasingly over the last few decades people from many other European countries and beyond have moved there.

It is a mixed community not an expat ghetto.

Above the village I find El Cid's Bowling Club. It is noon, 30C (86F) and 45 expats, dressed in the sport's full white uniform, are competing hard against each other. Amongst them a handful of Welsh players.

Linda and Ieuan Davies, originally of Cardiff, have been living in the Jalon valley since 2012. They are not working and not old enough to get a state pension. They pay the Spanish authorities €60 a month.

For that they get a health card which gives them and their dependent free healthcare but they do pay for prescriptions.

Both are worried about the result of the referendum. They have both voted by post and voted to remain.

Linda says it is not for what she calls "selfish reasons" but rather that she thinks EU countries are better together and she wants to see the UK stay as part of that group. She says she is also worried about the future.

Their UK occupational pensions are calculated in pounds and so if the exchange rate falls that hits their pocket.

I also spoke to Jeff and Ann Eslick, who decided three years ago to move back home to Lincolnshire and have now sold their house in Spain.

"The EU just seems to be a group of people who aren't taking into consideration the people they're serving," said Ann.

"I feel we have to take that back and make our own decisions. It's got too big and we're not controlling ourselves."

Jeff added: "It's all been scaremongering. The big industries we had - steel, iron, shipbuilding and transport have disappeared because of cheap imports. I believe they'll come back under our own government."

The most popular countries where Britons live abroad

Australia 1,289,396 residents born in the United Kingdom

United States 714,999

Canada 607,377

South Africa 318,536

Spain (EU) 308,821

New Zealand 265,014

Ireland (EU) 254,761

France (EU) 185,344

Germany (EU) 103,352

Italy (EU) 64,986

Source: United Nations, 2015

In a nutshell: the argument for leaving the EU

Given the importance of UK tourists in the EU and in particular to Spain, it is likely the UK government would find it relatively easy to renegotiate similar privileges to the ones British tourists, workers and expat pensioners currently enjoy.

If Britain leaves, the argument is that it will force the EU to change for the better - and will benefit those expats who carry on living in Spain.

In a nutshell: the argument for staying in the EU

Although expats who currently live there are expected to have "acquired rights" to remain under international law and to own property, there are no guarantees over benefits, pensions and medical treatment and their continuation would depend on new agreements with the UK. Also if free movement ends, it could mean applying for visas to live or work there in future.


Image caption,
The number of pupils at this international school has increased fivefold in 16 years

It is not just retired people in the expat community. The digital revolution means for many professionals they can work almost anywhere, have meetings on Skype and fly to most places from Alicante when they have to meet clients or colleagues face to face.

This means there are young families living in Spain and the Lady Elizabeth School near Benissa, a few miles from Teulada, has more than 1,000 pupils from 26 different nations.

It is one of 15 international schools on the Costa Blanca. Exams are sat in English, Spanish and Valenciano, one of Spain's regional languages.

Image caption,
Howard Westcott has been working in Spain since 2008

Economics teacher Howard Westcott said: "There's a whole new wave coming - there's a caricature of expats, that we come for the cheap beer and karaoke nights, but there's a whole generation that come for job opportunities, setting up their own businesses."

He said for the self-employed it could be complicated to start with on the Costa while they pay a significant contribution to the state to be covered for health and social care.

"I run as business as well as teach, and I pay my taxes. Yes, the sun is lovely but it's not why I came here. I came for the opportunity to teach in a wider environment.

"The nature of work has changed. People don't have to physically be where their workplace is. A lot of families I know work online and can travel abroad from here. You may as well be based here where the weather is nice and it's a cheaper economy."

The question on the minds of many that I spoke to was if the UK left the EU, what would happen to the agreements in free health and education that are in place now.

Remain supporters fear those benefits would disappear while many of those who want the UK to leave say that British employees and customers are too important to the Spanish economy for Spain to want to make life difficult for them.

At this stage it is impossible to know what will happen and what the reaction will be of Spain and other governments across the EU if Britain votes to leave.

Mr Westcott said there were questions and he would consider taking Spanish citizenship when he was eligible if he had to.

"Students are asking me will I need a visa to travel to university, the things you naturally get with freedom of movement? No-one has convinced me yet with the arguments for coming out, what are the advantages."


Image caption,
Sarah speaking to a group of Spanish people in Javea

I certainly found dismay among many Spaniards about why the UK is even holding a referendum. There is disquiet in Spain too about the bureaucracy of the European Commission, about whether its economic policies are steered to benefit France and Germany most and also whether decision making in the EU is too centralised.

But generally in Spain the feeling expressed to me was that change should and can happen from within the EU, not by leaving it.