|The image of expats in The Guardian (2015) Photo: Alamy|
|More expats in The Guardian (2017) Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images|
This has continued after the referendum. While there has been widespread (and deserved) media attention to the three million EU citizens in Britain, UK nationals in the EU remain largely invisible. Groups of Britons in Europe have written an Alternative White Paper for the Brexit bill, they have lobbied MPs and peers. It has had little impact in the press. They have written to David Davis and the department for leaving the EU. They have received no reply. EuroCitizens, a group of Britons in Madrid, contacted the all-party group of peers and MPs visiting Spain last week. They were too busy discussing business to meet them.
To find out why this is happening we need to delve into stereotypes about expats. We are accustomed to the dehumanising of 'swarms' of immigrants, the 'cockroaches' or 'feral humans’ of the toxic tabloids. Albeit on a much milder scale, the same process is applied to British citizens abroad. In her book, Identity, Ideology and Positioning in Discourses of Lifestyle Migration, Michelle Lawson analysed the language used in newspapers to describe British emigrants in France. She found frequent mentions to 'waves', 'influxes' of Britons, of 'the new British invasion’, of areas 'swamped by Britons'. 'British expat' consistently collocated with negative words and phrases. The term 'expat' itself was derogatory.
A note of envy is clear: these Britons have 'esconded' from their responsibilities, ‘escaped’ the UK weather and job market. They are living a 'dream' or an idyll' in their 'simply divine Tuscan villa'. A 2012 Daily Mail article, titled 'The expats who are far too happy to be homesick,' comments on a survey of Britons abroad. 'You might expect them to pine for the countryside, hanker after the beer or at least wonder what's happening on EastEnders' writes the journalist. 'But these days, it seems British expats are too busy enjoying the customs and cuisine of their adopted countries to feel homesick in the slightest.' The article goes on to describe how these heartless renegades do not even miss their nearest and dearest. Such discourse logically leads to the most extreme Little Englander view that expats are traitors to their own country.
The reality of British emigrants in the EU is starkly different. To start with, nearly half live in rainy northern Europe. Around 800,000 of the 1.2 million are workers or their dependants (Migration Watch). Even in sunny Spain, only a third are UK pensioners and most of these live on modest incomes; over 60,000 Britons in Spain are in work (UK Embassy, Madrid). As well as retirees, there are business people, language teachers, academics, scientists, tour guides, hotel workers, IT specialists, students. Most British expats in Europe are hard-working citizens who have taken advantage of the EU to find a better job and a better life for their families. Many work for British companies and their work contributes to the UK's role in the world and the country’s balance of payments.
Lazy stereotyping by the press, including The Guardian, has enabled politicians to forget about the 1,2 million Britons in the EU, to use them as bargaining chips. It must stop. And the UK should start caring about its emigrants, as other civilised countries do.