It is the destiny of the expatriate Scot, wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, 'to live a voluntary exile, and have [one's] head filled with the blessed, beastly place all the time'.
Stevenson was, I'm pretty sure, referring to the emotional tug from which no exile is ever entirely immune. But those of us who choose what Auden called the 'altered gradient at another rate' of living overseas can also never quite escape a few more functional links to the land we left.
Most people have family and/or friends there, and feel impelled to visit once in a while. Many still own UK property, perhaps rented out, or other assets. A lot pay long-standing direct debits to charities, businesses or family trust funds. Some meet UK tax liabilities of one kind or another. The older among us have pensions to bank, of which more in a moment. Some, among whom ageing journalists shall be nameless, may still do odd scraps of online work or consultancy (these being two different things). We may retain a UK mobile phone to avoid having to change a number we've had for years. Lots of us try to keep pace with books and periodicals published in our own language, and films or music from our own culture.
Some of these commitments are optional, but many are not. What they all have in common is that developments since Brexit, and particularly in recent months, are making them much more difficult, and in some cases impossible, to fulfil.
I tell you this, as always, with no expectation of sympathy. Deserters like me know we deserve all we get. Even so, we are still British citizens, for better or worse; there are 1.2 million of us in the EU. The fact that our lives are being made so much harder is a very big deal for us. You might have thought this merited a line of type or commentary now and again in the UK media. From what I can see, it rarely does.
A few weeks ago, for example, Barclays Bank decided no longer to allow British citizens resident overseas to hold UK bank accounts. Letters are being sent instructing expats to close their UK accounts. Several other banks have said they will service existing accounts – for now, at any rate – but refuse new ones. The implications for expats are potentially devastating. It means that we may no longer have valid bank cards when we visit family in the UK, or try to buy goods or services online from UK suppliers. Already, many online retailers will only accept orders from customers whose credit card carries a UK billing address. Others have simply stopped shipping goods to EU customers altogether, because the paperwork since 2019 is beyond them.
Here's how bizarre it has become. A successful British wine importer recently moved his family and business from Wales to here in Montpellier, to escape the mountains of paperwork – and the £350-per-pallet customs broker fees – which Brexit loaded onto his costs. His business, remember, is selling French wine in Britain. This activity is evidently no longer viable from the UK. Overall, he puts the cost of Brexit to his business at £150,000 a year.
Much of the mess arises because Brexit, far from having been 'got done', is full of holes, of which the most gaping (Ireland aside) is loss of the passport system, guaranteeing regulatory equivalence between UK and EU financial businesses. Instead, there is a bewildering fankle of bilateral bits and bobs agreed with EU member states as a 'third' country. UK money-mongers need costly separate licences in each member state where they want to trade. Small wonder that, since Brexit, the City of London has lost out in fields like share trading and derivatives to other centres like Amsterdam.
The consequences for individuals can be monstrous. I thought it fanciful when I first read that British insurance companies were unilaterally cancelling the life policies of UK citizens resident in France because they no longer felt able to deal into the EU… until, that is, we tried to draw down the private pensions we have been diligently paying into for decades with a prominent UK company.
Naively, we began by suggesting that it would be, ahem, prudential to have our pensions paid in Euros, rather than sterling. Back came the answer: we couldn't have it in either, or any, currency because we were no longer primarily resident in the UK: not even with UK bank accounts and, as it happens, a secondary address in the UK. Why not? The answer to that one came accompanied by a soon-to-be familiar shrug: Brexit.
So we acquired the first in a series of advisors and middlemen, all of them eager for a sook at our savings. UK firms were canvassed and it was confirmed that none was willing to pay us our own money as pensions, even into our UK bank accounts. We trawled the English language press here for companies based outside the UK but specialising in working with British citizens. Complex schemes were floated for shifting our money into the EU, barely a word of which I understood. Long and perplexing Zoom sessions consumed our summer. We consumed a great deal of wine.
Eventually, an advisor based in Spain (and qualified under both UK and EU regulation) persuaded us of a scheme whereby our money was transferred to a holding company in, I think, Malta, and thence to an international fund manager regulated out of Dublin. This firm could not pay us a pension, as such, but it could pay a regular direct debit. You may wonder what the difference is. It is that each debit payment incurs a hefty admin fee. Would we like it annually? We opted instead for a quarterly take, from which diminished figure we dole out a monthly sum to ourselves and call it our pension.
Finance is far from the only Brexit minefield. Any EU driving licence is valid across the EU, and France continues to accept a British licence. But British driving licences have a limited lifespan and, once they expire, you must get a French one. This can take months, for French and UK drivers alike, so you are issued a temporary pass, accepted in France but not in the UK… where your UK licence has now expired. So forget the hire car for those family visits.
In fairness, the French have generally made good on their promise to uphold the rights of Brits who were here before Brexit. Where things have changed, it is usually because of EU-wide provision or British obduracy. Our absolute right to live anywhere in the EU under Freedom of Movement is replaced with the titre de séjour
, a third country residence permit renewable every five years and valid only in France. Acquiring this was slow, but not obstructive, though the word is that Brits wanting to move here in future will face a tougher test, including a language exam. The carte vitale
gives us the same healthcare rights as French citizens, though we have lost our vote as EU citizens at local elections.
Meanwhile, this week's Labour conference has been told by the leadership that the party won't win the next election if it says 'negative' things about Brexit. Bully for them. There's no obvious reason for the rest of us to be so reticent.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster