San Fulgencio’s British community says “no” to Brexit

Britons living in this Mediterranean town fear rising health expenses and declining property values

English customers at Jack's Bar, at the Marina de San Fulgencio.
English customers at Jack's Bar, at the Marina de San Fulgencio.Pepe Olivares (EL PAÍS)

London Street in San Fulgencio, a small municipality in the Mediterranean province of Alicante, opens up into a small square where street cafés encourage British retirees to sit in the sun and toast themselves lobster red.

The pints of beer served at Jack’s Bar also contribute to the skin hue of many residents here – starting with Miller, a 67-year-old from York who adores karaoke and fears a Brexit vote.

If the British decide to pull out of the European Union his modest pension wouldn't pay for his health costs, which at present, under a reciprocal EU treaty, are covered by the Spanish Social Security system, but that might end if “out” wins on June 23. Then Miller would have to pay for his own medication. An exit from the EU might also affect the value of the semi-detached home he has bought here.

There are all kinds of properties in La Marina, from €30,000 apartments to villas going for a cool million

There are many other retirees here in the same situation. In this sprawling residential development known as La Marina, Spanish is barely spoken. Located 40 kilometers from Alicante, and five kilometers inland from the resort of Torrevieja, La Marina de San Fulgencio is home to 56 nationalities – mostly British citizens, but also many from Germany, Norway and Russia. They have their own radio stations and their own newspapers, and speak their own language with local bank clerks and vets.

“The decision to hold a referendum on Britain’s exit from the EU has seen a 30% drop in sales,” explains Ascensión Duarte, sitting inside her office at the Smart real estate agency. “There’s a state of uncertainty that puts many contracts at risk. Transactions have been placed on hold until the result is announced. If Brexit happens, many English pensioners are going to find themselves in a very delicate situation. They are people with limited resources.”

Here in San Fulgencio, the health center is open 13 hours a day, but to curb a growing tide of health tourism, it only treats foreigners who are on the local resident register, the padrón. Life here is leisurely, just like people’s daily routines: a stroll, a stop at the plaza, a bus ride to the beach, a beer at the pub, and a visit to the doctor’s.

Healthcare is the key issue

R. A.

Although there are probably a lot more, the official number of British nationals living in Spain is around 300,000. And a third of them reside in the Valencian region – for the weather, the quality of life, the real estate advantages and the health coverage. Everyone who registers on the local rolls has a right to use the public health system, and to subsidized prescription drugs that only require a small co-payment.

Spain bills Britain an annual €300 million for its nationals’ health expenses – eight times less than what Britain collects from Spain for Spaniards’ health coverage in the UK.

“Leaving the EU makes no sense to me,” says Toby Kichenside, originally from London. “And I don’t say that just because it’s bad for me, but because it’s counter-intuitive to the idea of sharing a common space. It would mean economic disaster. It's a xenophobic and arrogant view. Things are just about even, but I hope that supporters of Brexit will reconsider.”

There are all sorts of properties in La Marina, from a €30,000 apartment to villas going for a cool million. There are retirees getting by on pensions, as well as high-income owners of mansions that wouldn't be out of place in Marbella.

“The truth is that the middle-class market has shrunk and the upper-class market has grown,” says  real estate agent Ascensión Duarte. “A lot of foreigners are arriving here who do not depend on the national health service and who will not be affected by a Brexit. It’s a way to ensure that a very consolidated area remains dynamic.”

With an official registered population of 10,000, San Fulgencio tops the list of Spanish municipalities with the largest foreign population. What’s more, it always had global aspirations: during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) it fell under control of the republicans, who renamed it Ukraine-on-the-Segura. The Soviet tribute did not last long, but it does illustrate San Fulgencio’s exceptionally outward-looking status.

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As Miller puts it: “I can’t return to York. Life is more expensive, cigarettes are more expensive, beer is more expensive. I don’t know what will become of my health if I stay in San Fulgencio, but I do know what will happen if I leave.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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