Many British expats in Portugal have confessed to being deeply worried about the Brexit referendum in the UK, which is scheduled to happen on June 23, just four weeks away at the time of this writing. Support for Brexit has been steadily growing in the UK, which has led many expats to wonder if they should sell property in Portugal now, rather than wait to see how things turn out.
British citizens in Portugal are really confused about what’s going to happen on June 23 and the consequences for them should Britain decide to leave the EU. Those who have lived outside Britain for less than 15 years are eligible to vote in the referendum and have their say.
Indeed, the British Ambassador to Portugal, Kristy Hayes, has strongly urged expats here to register to vote in the referendum, as every vote can be important. The Electoral Commission in the UK has launched the Overseas Voters Registration campaign. Ambassadors in other EU nations have been doing the same. Expats can easily register through an online process.
It is unclear how Brexit would affect the 40,000 Brits who are living in Portugal, just as nobody is quite sure about the impact of Brexit on the 115,000 British expats in Germany, 1 million in Spain and 200,000 in France.
Also, questions are being asked if Portugal would be obliged to treat the British expats and new immigrants from the UK in the same way as before, as differently. Would the rights and privileges of British expats be reduced to the same level as those enjoyed by non-EU nationals such as Chinese, Russian or Brazilian immigrants to Portugal? Nobody quite knows the right answer to this.
The British government is unclear about what Brexit would mean for expats, especially those who own holiday homes abroad. Would Brexit mean different rules on property ownership and taxation? Would expats enjoy the same property inheritance rights in Portugal as before? Would expats still be able to get automatic residence and work permits in Portugal?
What about the welfare benefits and public health services in Portugal, that many expats, especially older men and women depend on? Would that be taken away from them? Remember, a vast majority of British expats in Portugal are retirees over the age of 60. Most of them depend on a pension obtained from the UK. Would Brexit have any impact on this pension?
It is a complex scenario and nobody quite knows what to expect. Expats such as John Hewitson, who has been living in Portugal with his wife since his retirement 15 years ago, are very worried about what Brexit would mean for them.
As a pensioner, Hewitson’s chief worry is the exchange rate. There is a growing concern that Brexit would lead to a massive depreciation of the British pound. So if the pound drops so much as to achieve parity with the Euro, or even decline further, it would affect older people like Hewitson who depend on a pension from Britain, very badly indeed. It would reduce their buying power by a considerable extent.
The British government estimates that there are 1.2 million Brits living abroad. But unofficial sources indicate that the numbers could be much higher than that, in fact, closer to 2.5 million, as most expats fail to register with the local British embassy.
Some expats such as the 70-year-old Chris Wright worry that they may no longer get to enjoy the benefits of being EU citizens as before. Wright talks about how his wife was able to get her shoulder joint replaced for free in a Portuguese hospital because as a Brit, she is a EU citizen.
Such privileges may not be available to Britons any longer if Brexit was to become a reality. Going back home is not much of an option either. As Wright says, “It would be very difficult for some of us to go back to the U.K. now, with property prices having gone through the roof over there.”