Brexit – negative impacts on Expats

June 29, 2023 | Blog

The EU Referendum was held on 23rd June 2016. The referendum results (of the 37.4% of the UK’s population who voted, 52% voted to leave and 48% voted to remain) led to the UK formerly ceasing to be a  member of the European Union on 31st January 2020. As we approach the 7th anniversary of the 2016 EU Referendum, Sue Wilson MBE describes the impact of Brexit on British people living in the EU; the anguish that led to her becoming a political activist in the Rejoin movement and why she is a tireless campaigner for the rights of British people living the EU.

Brexit is Bonkers says Sue Wilson MBE

“The British government lost the trust of Brits abroad, and increasingly at home too.  As we watched our country move progressively to the right and become intolerant and inward  looking, we lost pride in our once great and democratic country.” 

At the start of 2016, my interest in British politics was practically non-existent. I was happily enjoying life in Spain and counting down the last 15 months till I drew my British state pension. My thoughts were only of joining my husband in our long-awaited retirement by the sea. Little did I know that within six months my world – and that of all Brits living in Europe – would be turned upside down by Brexit.


To say that Brexit hit me hard, and in ways I could never have anticipated, would be an understatement. As many concluded at the time, the feelings were akin to the grieving process experienced with the loss of a family member. During the first few weeks and months following the referendum, I experienced denial, anger, bargaining and depression. But not acceptance, never acceptance, even now, seven years later. 


After three weeks of weeping, wailing and wallowing, the tears finally dried up and I determined I had to take action. On the recommendation of a friend, I joined a new group – launched the day after the referendum – called Bremain in Spain. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Our rights were under threat


Since becoming Chair of Bremain in Spain in September 2016, my former lack of interest in politics was soon transformed into nothing short of an obsession. The benefits of EU membership, so often taken for granted until threatened, became all too clear. Promises made by the proponents of Brexit – that nothing would change and no rights would be lost – were quickly disproven. Once negotiations were underway between the UK and the EU, it soon became clear that our rights as British citizens living in Europe were under threat. 


Brexit negative impacts Expats


The battle against Brexit was one fought on many fronts. In the early days, a lot of our efforts were directed towards trying to reverse the terrible decision to leave the European Union, or at the very least to limit the damage by maintaining as close a relationship with the EU as possible. We fought for a softer Brexit and to hold a second referendum once the content of any Brexit deal was known. We even fought to overturn the referendum in the British courts due to illegal practices by the Leave campaign. But to no avail.


Despite the battles against Brexit itself, there was another important fight on our hands – the retention of as many of our existing citizens’ rights as possible. The fate of Brits in Europe had now become inextricably linked with the fate of EU citizens living in the UK. Thanks to the right-wing and occasionally racist rhetoric of the Brexiters, those EU citizens were now being treated as second-class citizens, and our fates were joined together. 

Loss of Freedom of Movement


Thanks to the, then Prime Minister Theresa May’s obsession with reducing immigration, the freedom of movement of EU citizens in the UK had to end. As a direct result of this decision, the European  Union took our freedom of movement (FOM) – to work, to live, to study in another EU country – off the negotiating table. Despite the coming together of groups like Bremain in Spain across Europe, to fight the loss of any of our existing rights, the battle for our FOM was lost. Of all the rights that we  Brits valued – and expected to hold for our lifetimes – the loss of our FOM is still one of the bitterest pills to swallow. Only now, years later, are the population of the UK also starting to appreciate that this loss affects their freedoms too. 


While we waged war on the UK government to protect our rights to residency, healthcare, family reunification etc., there was – and still is – another fight going on in the UK. When Bremain in Spain surveyed our members on their Brexit concerns, one thing consistently topped our polls. The British government have lost the trust of Brits abroad, and increasingly at home too. As we watched our country move progressively to the right and become intolerant and inward-looking, we lost pride in our once great and democratic country. 


Since the fateful day of the June 2016 EU Referendum, my ‘retirement’ has consisted of 7-day weeks of unpaid activism, and my obsession with British politics continues. It’s been a difficult and demanding journey, but one that has taught me new skills – such as public speaking and writing – given me confidence, and given me a purpose I didn’t even know I was seeking. The struggle has seen many high and lows, but sadly we lost, and to the hardest possible form of Brexit.

Brexit is far from done


At the age of 70, I have asked myself many times how much longer I can keep up this fight. Whether it’ll be a particular event –such as replacing this Tory government or rejoining the single market – that will make the decision for me, or a desire to finally enjoy the Spanish retirement I dreamed of, is hard to say. Will I be able to switch off my obsession and go back to being in ignorant bliss about politics?


Having opened that can of worms, and seen where it has taken me, I may be stuck with scouring the headlines for the rest of my days.  Despite government claims, Brexit is far from “done”. The economic realities of Brexit and the exposure of Brexiter lies can longer be ignored or hidden by the pandemic. Businesses are becoming more critical, the media are finally starting to pay more attention and the public is suffering the consequences of a Brexit-inflicted cost of living crisis. 


Public opinion can be slow to change. But when the pain of Brexit is being felt by so many British citizens and businesses – at home and abroad – something has to give. Brexit is, was, and always will be ‘bonkers’. As long as that fact remains true, the fight for a return to common sense, to tolerance and democracy, and eventually to the European Union, will continue. Who wants to retire anyway? 

Sue Wilson MBE is the Chair of Bremain in Spain and campaigns for the rights of British citizens in Spain and across the EU. Sue was awarded the MBE in 2021 “for  services to British Nationals in Spain and the European Union.” Sue is a tireless activist in the campaign for the UK to Rejoin the EU and was one of the platform speakers at the National Rejoin March in London on 22nd October 2022. 


Sue is also a contributor to the book, #Living The Dream: Expat Life Stripped Bare in which nine women share the emotional and practical realities of life away from ‘home’ – the highs and the lows of moving abroad. #Living The Dream, edited by Carrie Frais, is published by Springtime Books (paperback, RRP £10) and available through bookshops and internet booksellers. An e-book version of #Living The Dream is also available on MumAbroad which can be purchased for €5.

For more stories, help and advice on living abroad visit MumAbroad Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

two × four =