EU Referendum

EU referendum: How British expats in Spain feel about the vote

Brian Last (second from right) and others watching football
Image caption Brian Last (second from right) watches his beloved Gunners

Brian Last seems to have two great passions in life: Arsenal Football Club and the European Union.

At an expat bar in Benalmadena, on the Costa del Sol, Brian was watching his club play a Champions League match on television. And the animation he displayed whenever his team got the ball was matched by his passion for the EU.

"I've got really good Spanish friends. Obviously, I feel English and British first, then I feel European," he says.

What worries Brian is that Britain might now vote to leave the European Union.

"If I decided to up sticks, I could go to Portugal or France. But if Britain decides to leaveā€¦ that may change."

No-one knows how many British people are, like Brian, long-term residents in Spain; the number is thought to be anywhere between 300,000 and 700,000.

Image caption Hundreds of thousands of British citizens live in Spain

But the British government has warned that two million British expats in Europe could be adversely affected in the event of an Out vote. Their right to free healthcare and their basic right to work could both be jeopardised, a Cabinet Office report says.

Campaigners to leave the European Union have dismissed the report's findings as "scaremongering", part of what they see as a long-term strategy by the government which they have dubbed "project fear". It aims, they say, to persuade voters to stick with what they know and remain inside the EU.

'Not just the money'

But fears about leaving the EU are all too real, as far as Christine Rowlands is concerned. She's the chairwoman of the Costa del Sol branch of Conservatives Abroad, and insists that the party locally is united in wanting to remain inside the EU, unlike her political counterparts back home.

"It's not just about the money," she insists. "Our friends are Danish, German, Spanish. It's about a united Europe."

Image copyright Christine Rowlands/Facebook
Image caption Christine Rowlands says expats want a "united Europe"

Asked what she makes of the Conservative debate on Europe back home in Britain, Christine giggles a little mischievously. "It's like a children's playground," she says.

There is certainly a stark contrast here with the situation back home, where local Conservative Associations are perceived mainly to be of a Eurosceptic bent.

Eurosceptic voices

But in fact, there are plenty of Eurosceptic opinions to be heard on the Costa del Sol if you listen to the local English language radio station, Talk Radio Europe, and particularly its weekly phone-in show Viewpoint. It recently devoted a whole edition to the EU referendum, prompting many callers to sound off against the EU and all its works.

David Cameron was denounced for fighting to keep Britain in, while Boris Johnson was praised for his "courage" in joining the Out camp. "We did not vote for federalism, we voted for a common market," protested one listener.

Viewpoint's presenter is Richard Tildesley, a man with his ear very much glued to the ground when it comes to political opinion among expats. And he believes that living on the European mainland has put many people off the EU, however cosmopolitan their lives.

Image caption Richard Tildesley says many expats see the EU as destroying local, individual cultures

They are not impressed by how EU funds are spent, he believes, thinking the money is wasted on unnecessary projects while neglecting problems that badly need sorting out. Tildesley also argues that expats see the EU as destroying the very aspects of Spanish life that originally drew them to the country.

"What they perceive being created at the moment is a rather bland, pan-European homogenised culture."

Registration drive

Given the strength of opinion on this subject, it is perhaps surprising that so few expats in Spain have actually registered to vote, either in the forthcoming referendum, or indeed for any British elections.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The British embassy in Spain is encouraging British expats to register for the vote

British citizens who leave the country are entitled to vote, providing they have been away for less than 15 years. But so far, only 11,000 people from the hundreds of thousands in Spain are on course to make use of this right.

The British embassy in Spain has launched a campaign to persuade British expats to register for the vote, a campaign that is being mirrored in countries across the world. It will use Facebook and Twitter to get its message across, but the embassy will also work with local Anglican churches, charities and any other organisations where expats are found.

"Registration of expat voters is fairly low across the world," British ambassador Simon Manley complains. Like any good diplomat, he gives no hint of his own view on the UK's membership of the EU, but he is passionate about the need for more voter engagement.

"The referendum is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to determine the future of our country. Whatever their views, wherever they live, I think it's important people exercise that right to vote."

For more on this story listen to Paul Moss's report on The World Tonight.

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