Europe

For UK expats, it's a wonderful life in an EU that some hate

Behind a tall hedgerow in this sleepy Portuguese town, soft applause is occasionally heard as a group of around 20 elderly British men and women, all dressed in white in late winter sunshine, engage in the genteel and quintessentially British pastime of lawn bowls.

The bowling green is a handsomely manicured lawn, around 30 meters (100 feet) square, nestled among palm trees and extensive condominiums whose apartments are commonly sold to expatriates from the United Kingdom. The Vilamoura Lawn Bowls Club has close to 40 members who play three-hour games, and there are enough Britons living along Portugal's southern Algarve coastline to sustain eight lawn bowls clubs that play in two leagues.

"Why live in a place in England when you can live here?" asks club member John Hewitson, 73, indicating the summery atmosphere in early March in a region that is one of Europe's most popular vacation destinations.

But for these British expats a dark cloud of uncertainty is taking shape in the Algarve's blue skies: they don't know what will happen if their country votes to leave the European Union in a June referendum. They fear that quitting the EU might snatch away their income, legal rights and health care benefits.

The U.K. and Portugal are among the bloc's 28 countries. EU laws stipulate that the bloc's citizens have the same rights as those nationals in any other member nation.

The impending ballot has brought pressing questions for these expats about what might happen if they no longer belong to the EU. Would a so-called Brexit bring different rules for them on property ownership and taxation, or inheritance rights? Would British expats still be entitled to local welfare benefits and free public health services? Would they still be able to get automatic residence and work permits?

For Hewitson, who retired out here with his wife 15 years ago and lives on his British pension, the immediate worry is the exchange rate. The British pound has weakened recently as financial markets fret over the referendum. If sterling drops to parity with the shared euro currency, which Portugal uses, it "would be a disaster for pensioners," he said.

Britain's House of Commons library estimates that roughly 1.2 million Britons live in other EU countries. France, Spain and Portugal are especially popular. Analysts, however, reckon the true number could be at least double that, and maybe a lot more, because many people don't bother registering with their embassies or local authorities.

Campaigners in the U.K. who detest the EU say they are fed up with, among other things, immigrants having access to often overstretched British public services and generous welfare benefits. The House of Commons library calculates there are around 3 million EU migrants living in the U.K.

Peter Booker, who retired with his schoolteacher wife to Tavira in the eastern Algarve 17 years ago after a three-decade career in the British coal industry, says a possible U.K. exit from the EU is "extremely worrying." A Cambridge University history graduate who with his wife founded the Algarve History Association, which encourages expatriates to learn about Portugal, Booker rejects the anti-EU campaigners' benefits argument, saying reciprocity is fair.

"I benefit here in Portugal, and Portuguese benefit in Britain, and I think that is right and it should remain like that," he said.

Chris Wright, 70, couldn't agree more. Three years ago, his wife had a shoulder joint replaced at a local hospital — free of charge, because as a Briton she is an EU citizen — and the doctors did an "absolutely fantastic job."

Wright is behind another eccentric British sport taking root in the Algarve: walking football. It's an amateur soccer game with two essential rules: you have to be over 50 and you can't run, only walk. The club, one of four in the region, is based in the old fishing town of Olhao and has about 80 players on its books.

Wright's nightmare scenario is being left financially stranded by the referendum. "It would be very difficult for some of us to go back to the U.K. now, with property prices having gone through the roof over there," he said after a training session next to the Olhao Stadium.

Though about half the Britons living in the Algarve are believed to be pensioners, for others their livelihoods are at stake.

In Albufeira, one of the Algarve's tourist hotspots, 60-year-old Michael Wood from Northampton, England, owns and runs the Tunes Bar. Albufeira's old town is a pretty jumble of low, whitewashed houses tumbling down to a golden beach. The importance of the British tourist trade is evident: there's a newsstand called Jimmy's and a bar called Sir Harry's, and billboards offer full English breakfasts and fish and chips.

Some of Wood's best business, he says, comes from Britons on what they call the "cigarette run": a quick trip to Portugal on a low-cost flight to buy dozens of cartons of cigarettes, which are about 70 percent cheaper than in the U.K. Because there is free movement of goods and people in the EU, there is no legal limit on how many can be taken. If the U.K. wasn't in the EU, the limit would be 200 cigarettes.

Standing behind his horseshoe bar, with British channels on two wall-mounted television sets and red-and-white England flags outside on the Portuguese street, Wood is full of praise for the Portuguese health service and says prescriptions cost "next to nothing" compared with the U.K.

He reckons British officials could learn from the Portuguese by capping some benefits for everyone, locals or foreigners. Unemployment benefits, for example, last just 18 months in Portugal, while in the U.K. they are open-ended. "There's a limit to what people can have," Wood says.

Sheila MacDonald, a retired Scottish woman, lives in Tavira Garden, a condominium set around a large swimming pool that is home to dozens of expatriates, in the town of Tavira. She came here for the healthy climate and belongs to expat clubs that study books, music and archaeology. She also does fundraising for local charities to "put something back into the community."

She explains why she wants the U.K. to remain in the EU by recalling events of almost 80 years ago. As a small child in Edinburgh in the early years of World War II, she remembers sitting in air-raid shelters listening to the bark of anti-aircraft guns. After sleepless nights, in the morning she would pick up pieces of shrapnel in her family garden. The EU, she notes, has so far kept the peace on a continent that for centuries was wracked by wars.

"We've seen the benefits, we've lived the benefits of the EU," she said.