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Sunday evening and the local Shakespeare society is finishing a rehearsal. It has gone well and the players — mostly retirees; a handful of ex-servicemen — are getting into cars and driving home.
“We perform in two weeks’ time,” says Liz Pearce, the show’s director. She has got them rehearsing four times a week — for some, you sense that might be a stretch; the oldest member of the cast is over 80. They are performing All’s Well That Ends Well.
So far, so English. Except we’re not in England. We are just outside Paphos in Greek Cyprus. Liz, a software consultant in her early fifties, and her husband, Bob, moved out here permanently from Britain in 2007, mostly for the clement weather (and the more clement tax rates). Bob, 70, is the stage manager. He’s also ex-RAF. “I was stationed at Akrotiri in the ’60s,” he says in a soft northern burr, “hence I like Cyprus.”
Paphos is a little pocket of England abroad. Shops have familiar names: Debenhams, Marks and Spencer, Topshop; and the British-style pubs serve fry-ups and Sunday roasts. It is a happy place — but it might be under threat.
The play opens this weekend for a three-night run at the ancient amphitheatre in Curium, less than a week before the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. If Britain votes to leave, then for the 60,000 or so expats living in Cyprus, all manner of things could be affected: healthcare, pensions, spending power, perhaps even the right to buy and own property.
Bob isn’t fazed. He’s voting for Brexit. “We get too much interference from Brussels,” he says. “We’d be better off on our own.” The arguments against? “Scaremongering.”
It is a view that divides the cast. Richard Mathews, 73, is playing three walk-on roles: soldier, courtier and Florentine. He is backing the Remain campaign, but insists there is no animosity in the rehearsal room. No one is likely to switch a stunt foil for a real one, he assures me, which is not something you’d put past the Conservative party at the moment, what with all the blue-on-blue back-stabbing.
But then the Tories only have a country to run. These guys have a show to put on. “The cast don’t have time to talk [about Brexit],” Liz says. “I’m too busy rehearsing them.”
Expat Brexiters are rare, but considering how leaving offers so little in the way of material gain, and threatens so much uncertainty, they are not as rare as you might think.
Tim Hedges, 60, has lived in Italy since 2000. His backing of Brexit is absolute. “We would be better off financially, democratically and in terms of sovereignty if we left,” he says.
But then Hedges has form. In 1991, he helped Alan Sked set up the Anti-Federalist League. The party became Ukip and Sked its first party leader. Hodges became a farmer in Italy and now divides his time between Umbria and Rome, from where, of late, he has been writing anti-EU think pieces for the English-language media.
Hedges is at his most energetic when writing about how un-British the whole EU set-up is. There isn’t the same tradition of proportional representation in our political system, he says, not the same tradition of common law in the EU. He is convincing — up to a point. “In part it’s because Britain wasn’t overrun by Napoleon.”
Photographer Rip Hopkins thinks this exceptionalist attitude speaks volumes about the British psyche. He tried to capture something of it in his book Another Country, about Britons living in the Dordogne. “The British living in France create their own little micro-cosmos,” he says. “The Dordogne is basically a British bubble.”
Hopkins’ subjects are transplanted eccentrics, his photos surreal. He has an 84-year-old Ted Moore take a bath with a glass of champagne, his pug and two saluki-crosses. He photographs 42-year-old Rachel Evans in her living room, stripped naked but for a pair of off-white suede boots. She looks back at the camera coquettishly while riding on Stan, a 13-year-old grey donkey. Stan looks put upon.
“Even though some of them had been there for 40 or 50 years, it was like they were stuck in time,” says Hopkins. He laughs. “They’re like ambulant museums of Britain.”
Whereas most immigrants to France come for better job prospects, the British come for aesthetic reasons, he says. “They don’t go with three suitcases full up with everything they can possibly carry; they go over with a train of delivery trucks,” he says. “Their income comes predominately from England still: they sell their house and live off pensions, stock options and dividends.”
So what could happen to them if Britain leaves the EU? Claims made by the UK’s Europe minister David Lidington — and echoed in the Cabinet Office’s official guidelines — that Britons may no longer be able to live in France or Spain if Britain votes out have been roundly pooh-poohed by the other side. Paul Stephenson, from Vote Leave, points to the thousands of US expats who live in Europe without needing to be part of the EU. One real and present danger, though, is sterling, which could fall as much as 20 per cent against the euro, according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. If you are paid in pounds, the advice is simple: brace yourself.
What all this is doing to the property markets is even harder to determine. Agents are keen to wheel out data showing British interest in expat hotspots has been undimmed since February 20, when the date of the referendum was announced. UK inquiries in Tuscany increased 24 per cent between December and April, according to Knight Frank research; in Aquitaine, where the Dordogne is, they are up 23 per cent. In the Algarve, Meravista, which is a property portal akin to Rightmove, records a 35.7 per cent increase in traffic from UK users in the first five months of 2016, compared with the previous year.
Crisis? What crisis? Except figures from Meravista show that the median house price in the Algarve has fallen 3.86 per cent in the past six months. In France, the number of UK buyers has dropped 15 per cent over the same period, according to Mark Harvey of Knight Frank, and is down 25 to 30 per cent in Spain.
“Agents that list properties with us say it’s difficult to get people over the line to commit,” says Andy Bridge, managing director of A Place in the Sun, another Rightmove-like portal that caters to British expats looking for property abroad.
Spain is Bridge’s biggest market, making up 48 per cent of his inquiries, he says. Yet in March, it was reported that 100 British expats a day were leaving the country amid Brexit fears. It is an exodus on a scale that few agents believe. The calculation was pretty crude, based on UN data showing that 72,000 fewer Britons were registered in Spain in 2015 compared with 2013. A 72,000 decrease in two years means 100 a day. Except those numbers are likely to be unreliable because a lot of British residents don’t register when they move abroad, thanks indirectly to the EU’s free movement of people law.
For Brexiters abroad, this is another sticking point. Nadia Cann, 39, has lived in the Algarve for nine years and thinks Britain would be better off out of the EU. “Immigration is a large problem,” she says, aware of how rich that sounds coming from an immigrant — but perhaps not aware how offensive she sounds to many. “I couldn’t imagine living in parts of the UK that are overrun,” she says.
Her brother-in-law is Portuguese, lives in the UK and claims benefits. She doesn’t agree with it. He is out of the ordinary, I point out: while EU immigrants are more likely to claim in-work benefits, UK nationals are more likely to claim for unemployment. Cann is unimpressed. She thinks benefit tourism is underneath the lot. “People from the UK think: ‘Why should I get off my backside when [immigrants] are coming over and claiming for free?’” she says. “It’s got to where we are now because of immigration.”
For Bob Pearce, immigration isn’t such a big deal — not in the UK, anyway, though he is concerned about the free movement of people in Greek Cyprus if Turkey is admitted to the EU.
Bob isn’t concerned that his tax situation may change, nor the fact that his pension might be frozen. He believes that Cyprus’s special relationship with the UK will shield expats from the worst of the regulatory maelstrom that Brexit would whip up. However, if the UK does have a special relationship with Cyprus, no one has told the British High Commission in Nicosia: ask them what might happen in the case of Brexit and they will forward you the same mealy-mouthed guidelines they will send to everyone. Guidelines that pretty much boil down to: everything is up in the air.
“People are more concerned with the little everyday things here,” Bob says, “more pressing family matters; the birth of a grandchild, something like that.”
But he collects three pensions from the UK. If sterling falls, he knows his spending power will be seriously curtailed.
“You’ve got to remember that being in the EU hasn’t meant a steadily rising pound,” he says. “The value of the pound has been up and down all over the place since we’ve been here. Down to €1.1, up to something like €1.31. We get used to it.”
Nathan Brooker is a commissioning editor on House & Home
Brexit: the numbers
2m Number of UK citizens living in the EU, though estimates vary
15 years Cut-off point for expat voting eligibility. Anyone who has been living in mainland Europe for longer than 15 years cannot vote in the referendum
Zero Number of Vote Leave affiliated groups set up on the continent
£50,000 Estimated amount expat pensioners could lose over 20 years if their pensions are frozen
20 per cent Amount that sterling could fall following a vote for Brexit, according to estimates
Photographs: Michael Riyashi; Rip Hopkins