LIKE many Brits, Sue Wilson moved to Spain with the expectation of a quiet retirement in the sun. But when the Brexit referendum produced a ‘yes’ vote in June 2016, the course of her life in Spain changed forever. This is her story:
Like many a British tourist, I fell in love with Spain at an early age. The idea of retiring on the costas was a dream that blossomed over time until, in our fifties, my husband Steve and I began to ask ourselves why wait till we retire? Why not just take the plunge? It was the best decision we ever made.
Although we moved in 2007, I continued to work for a further eleven years, both in the UK and Spain. When retirement did eventually come, it was rather different than expected – thanks to Brexit.
I say I’m retired, but since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, I have never worked so hard, or such long hours, in my entire career. Before that fateful day, when the referendum turned my world upside down, I had never been very interested in current affairs, and most definitely not in politics. I didn’t understand it or care to do so. When friends talked politics, I never engaged – I lacked the confidence to comment, or never felt I knew enough to offer an opinion.
That all started to change as the day of the Brexit referendum loomed closer. I started to worry that the UK was about to make a terrible decision. I had no real idea what leaving the EU might mean for us Brits living in Europe, or the UK, but it could hardly be good!
When the referendum result came in, I felt a range of emotions usually associated with grief. It was a rollercoaster of fear, anger, depression, shock, disbelief and sadness. And swearing, a lot of swearing! Even now, I can’t fully explain why it affected me so deeply, or still does.
After three miserable weeks, I woke up on day 22 determined to act. I joined the anti-Brexit campaign group Bremain in Spain. I needed to get involved and take personal action. I don’t know where that drive came from, but I began devouring the news and became very active online. It was a comfort to know my feelings were shared by others and that I was doing something positive.
Within three months, I was invited to take over as Chair of Bremain, and I have dedicated my life to it ever since. It’s an obsession. I’m not sure my sanity would have survived intact without it. I had found a new family.
There are so many downsides to Brexit, but on a personal level, there have been some positives too. I have met some amazing people from all walks of life, many of whom I would never have met under any other circumstances. I have learned new skills, not least public speaking on a scale I could never have imagined. In my career, I had regularly spoken to small groups of people, but delivering a speech to 120,000 people from a stage in Parliament Square, was a whole new ball game. Nerve-wracking yes, but the crowd was so receptive, and I got a real buzz from it. According to Steve, hand me a microphone now, and you’ll get crushed in the stampede to the stage!
My Brexit journey has changed me in ways I could never have imagined. Apart from the public speaking, I’ve got better at dealing with confrontation and I’ve become a writer of sorts. Considering my previous nervousness about voicing any political opinions, it still tickles me when journalists seek out my comment on current affairs. I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks after all.
I don’t think we fully appreciated what Spanish life for us would be like when we originally made our plans to emigrate. When we dreamed of our retirement in Spain, we certainly never imagined that I would be doing voluntary work seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year. I am often asked how much longer I intend to continue campaigning, or what I will do when Brexit is finally all over. It’s a difficult question to answer.
On the one hand, and despite all the pain, disappointment and effort, I am doing something that I care about deeply, and which, despite everything, I enjoy. I have a supportive husband who gets pleasure from seeing me so motivated and engaged, and he’s proud of what I have achieved. That means so much to me.
On the other hand, I’m now in my late 60s, full-time campaigning is exhausting, and Steve and I deserve that retirement we dreamed of. There have been many times I’ve looked ahead and given myself a deadline. I’ll give up Bremain when Brexit is ‘done’. I’ll give up Bremain when the transition period comes to an end. Then something will happen in Westminster or Brussels, and the adrenalin will kick in again, and any thoughts of quitting go out of the window. Not to mention the fact that Brexit likely won’t be fully over for a decade.
Maybe I should let fate decide and give up Bremain when a Brexiter finally gives me one real benefit of Brexit. I might have a very long wait!
Sue Wilson is the Chair of Bremain in Spain, a group that campaigns to protect the rights of British migrants living in Spain & across Europe. Read more of her story in the book #LivingTheDream Expat Life Stripped Bare, which is now available on Amazon.