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The Spaniards in the UK left adrift by the threat of a no-deal Brexit

European Union nationals are anxious and confused about how their right to live and work in Britain will be affected if the country crashes out of the bloc in October

Protest against Brexit in London.
Protest against Brexit in London. GETTY

Brexit is a recurring nightmare for many of the 3.5 million EU nationals living in the United Kingdom and who, for the first time, do not feel so welcome in the country. When Britain voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum, most EU residents in the UK were unprepared for the result – like Mar from Madrid, who was in the middle of moving with her family to London.

“Since we arrived three years ago, things haven’t gone badly for us. We have jobs and our two children [who are in a public school] already speak perfect English,” says Mar, an executive secretary married to a chef, who preferred not to give her surname. “If in the end we have to pack our bags, we will simply go somewhere else,” she says, determined not to let herself become overwhelmed by the inflexible position of the Boris Johnson government.

Although Mar moved to London under the cloud of Brexit, at the time there was a strong idea that good sense would put an end to the process. The British government of Theresa May smashed this hope. And the ensuing Johnson administration has since threatened to end freedom of movement for EU citizens immediately after a potential no-deal Brexit on November 1.

Mar does not want to speculate whether Johnson is just bluffing in order to win new concessions from Brussels. She has followed the steps recommended by the British Home Secretary in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and applied for recognition as a legal resident. She has been granted this status, but that’s not the end of the story. EU citizens in the UK have to show they have been living in the country for at least five years to obtain “settled status.” Those who, like Mar, do not pass the five-year benchmark, must first request “pre-settled status,” and can only apply to for “settled status” once they have lived in the country for five years. In both cases, EU residents will be allowed to work in the UK and use, among other public services, the National Health System (NHS). The deadline to file these applications will be extended until December 2020.

EU citizens have to show they have been living in the UK for at least five years to be granted “settled status”

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions that are making EU citizens anxious and confused. For instance, organizations in defense of EU rights such as 3 Million and Imix, ask: who will control who is and who is not a legal resident? Will it fall to medical services, home owners or businesses?

In the United Kingdom, there is no such thing as a physical national identity card (a driver’s license or credit card is usually used as ID), and there are no plans to provide non-British residents with a special document. It is also unclear what kind of documentation will be required of a person from Spain, France or Bulgaria who decides to visit their home country and return to Britain after October 31.

Rául García Lax, who is from Murcia, has worked as a hairdresser in London for 14 years, and he is not going to start any bureaucratic process until the British authorities in charge of issuing residency certificates “are clear” about what exactly is required. Lax will have no problem getting approved (“I have a social security number, and I own a houseboat in the canal”) but he is frustrated that the application is only compatible with Android cellphones, an issue that has also been criticized by 3 Million and Imix.

2.5 million applications pending

To date, one million EU citizens have successfully completed the process to regularize their status as residents in the case of a possible hard Brexit. But another 2.5 million EU nationals remain. Before summer, Dani Lozano, from Catalonia, received an internal memo from the bank where he works, which recommended its EU employees apply for settled status. “But I don’t want to waste time until something concrete happens,” he says, be that a soft or a hard Brexit, or no Brexit at all. His wife, Laura Jiménez, who also works in the financial sector, changed her mind after Johnson’s threat and will be applying for settled status on August 31, which marks five years since the couple arrived in London.

If they don’t want me here where I pay my taxes, I will go wherever it suits me

Hairdresser Rául García Lax

Silvia González López, from León, is the head of a recycling service at Newport City Hall and after living in the UK for four years should have no trouble getting pre-settled status. Her husband was granted it during a trial phrase that was pushed forward for higher education professionals. But Silvia is reluctant to apply, given that she will have to start the process again “from scratch,” once she has met the five-year benchmark, in order to request settled status. She also worries the application is not covered by the data protection law.

Speaking with EL PAÍS, Silvia says that it is a “personal decision,” which will not affect someone like herself with a stable job who contributes to the British social security system. But she is concerned that other EU nationals, like members of the Romanian community, as well as elderly and sick people who don’t know how to navigate the application process, are being left by the wayside or don’t realize that “the last train [for an orderly exit from the EU] left in March 2019.”

“Before Brexit, I felt more integrated,” admits Lax, who says he was once told to “go home” in a bar. He tries to ignore the strange mood stirred up by Brexit, and is convinced he will be able to continue his life in the UK, regardless of the final outcome. “But if in the end they don’t want me here, where I pay my taxes, I will go wherever it suits me,” he says defiantly.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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