by Simon Bridges
Simon asks – is that a “Yes” or a “No” then ?
There is an issue which is of concern to us all and one which has the potential to change our lives dramatically. On June 23rd all British citizens will be asked whether they wish Great Britain to continue to be a member of the European Union.
In France we are far from the only Brits abroad. The table below shows the top ten destinations for British expats in their 2013 data, and how the British population has changed in those countries since 1990 and 2000..
United States of America
Estimates of the UK’s migrant stock by destination for the mid-point (1 July) of each year. The estimates are based on official statistics on the foreign-born population.
Up to two million of us live on the continental mainland, official figures reveal. The question is “Will we still be welcome after June 23?” Here in the Pyrenees Orientales where many Britons live and work, the looming referendum on EU membership is causing a few sleepless nights.
Despite all the political rhetoric, including the 200-page document littered with mathematical formulae published by the Treasury in April, nobody can be certain of the consequences if Britain votes to leave the EU. This, to me is the very heart of the problem. George Osborne, the chancellor, has been grilled over the costs and benefits of membership by the Treasury Select Committee but there were no tablets of stone emerging. It is all guesswork – some of it more educated than others.
The main concern for expats has to be whether they will be allowed to continue living, working and having the time of their lives (Or is it just me ?) in their adopted country of residence. There is so much uncertainty about what would happen to people like us. It is a scary time to be a Brit living in Europe.
For some, the effects of the referendum are already being felt. Those who, like me, receive their pension in pounds and spend largely in euros have seen their finances severely hit.
The Treasury’s forecast of the impact of a “leave” vote suggests the economy would shrink by £2,600 per family over 15 years if Britain remained a member of the European Economic Area; by £4,300 if it negotiated a bilateral trade agreement similar to Switzerland’s ; or by £5,200 if all EU ties were cut and Britain were simply a member of the World Trade Organisation, like Russia.
However, expats living in the eurozone are already counting the cost, as sterling has weakened against the euro due to the uncertainty created by the vote. Having hit a seven-year high of about €1.44 last July, the pound now buys around one and a quarter Euros.
If I wanted to convert £1,000 into euros, I would now get only €1,270 compared with €1,440 last summer. That’s €170 less for me to spend on golf, or about £134. Say you brought £30,000 a year across from Britain into the eurozone. The difference between those two exchange rates would cost you €5,100 (£4,021) at today’s rate. And of course, the difference must all come out of disposable income.
As the financial crisis took hold, my buying power plummeted by a third. In January 2007 the pound stood at €1.50; two years later it was just over €1.
The latest YouGov poll found 40% of voters wish to remain in the EU, 39% want to leave and almost a quarter are unsure which side to choose or plan not to vote.
Whatever happens, the result will have a huge impact on the value of the pound. Mark Thompson of the foreign-exchange broker Global Reach Partners said: “We could see an immediate rebound of about 5% if there is a ‘remain’ camp victory. However, a recent Reuters poll suggested a 7% fall if we exit, while some believe the value of the pound could fall by up to 25%.”
Currency concerns are not the only worry, of course. Access to state-funded healthcare could be affected if there is a “leave” vote, for example. At present, British holiday home owners are eligible for the same level of healthcare as a French local if they have a European health insurance card (EHIC).
Whenever we permanent residents visit a GP in France, we pay for the appointment but get most of the money reimbursed. Britons who pay tax and social charges under the French system are able to use the carte vitale to access treatment in the same way as a French citizen. For those of us over state pension age our contributions are made directly by the UK government.
For British pensioners living on the Continent, there is the fear that the Westminster government will stop increasing their state pension in line with inflation. In countries further afield, including Canada, the state pension is frozen for retired expats at the level it was at when they became entitled or when they left Britain. At present, no country in the EU freezes the state pension for expats.
British citizens cannot take part in the referendum if they have not been registered to vote in the UK in the past 15 years. Unsurprisingly, given the potential impact on their lives, those affected are very unhappy that they will not have a say in the referendum. The good news for them is this could change. The High Court is hearing a case brought by long-term overseas residents who want to vote. Their lawyer, Aidan O’Neill QC, is arguing that his clients are “not expats” but “Britons in Europe” using EU freedom-of-movement rights to live and work on the Continent. That is me, a Briton in Europe.
I am sure that every one of us spent many hours going over the pros and the cons of a life in Southern France before making the move here. We all showed great courage and resolution in backing our decision to integrate ourselves into this society and it would seem profoundly unfair to me for someone to come along and change the rules we used to make that decision. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, I can only hope that our present idyllic way of life is allowed to continue exactly as it is.