Spain has long been a favourite country for expats from Northern Europe, Ireland and the UK. Once cheap and cheerful places to settle, the coastal strips of the Costa Brava and the Costa Blanca were transformed from the sleepy fishing villages of the early 70s into a string of “Blackpools with sunshine” of the mid-90s. Even the region around Seville, one of my favourite cities, was affected by the blight of ill-considered and ugly developments to make expats “feel more at home”... which they didn’t. But life was good and the natives were friendly.
Perhaps too friendly. Lax laws on transactions and local corruption meant that some expats didn’t even legally own the property they thought they’d bought. Many found that once they’d put in a pool, added an extension and made that old shepherd’s hut into a comfortable home, the shepherd then wanted it back. And in some cases he got it, leaving the expat destitute.
As the world financial crisis hit, numerous foreigners became the only residents of half-built housing projects with dozens of empty plots that the locals didn’t want. Communal sewage systems, water and electricity supplies were abandoned and squatters moved in next door. Some were even “illegal” properties cut off from water and electricity supplies and therefore unsellable.
Other expats learned the homes they had bought were in fact built without permission and were slated for demolition without compensation. They lost everything.
None of this was helped by official reaction. Andalucia’s Minister for Public Works described some expat homeowners as “people who settled illegally”. She might have thought so but those expats didn’t imagine they were not within the law. British expats Len and Helen Prior have had their Spanish dream home demolished through no fault of their own and continue to fight for compensation. Others who can afford it have started drawn out and expensive legal action, including cases against local politicians who they maintain facilitated the property grabs.
The last straw
The last straws have also been drawn on the issue of tax and Spanish medical care. As with expats everywhere, tax dodging is a tempting practice. Many here on the Riviera have found that the French authorities are becoming very much more proactive at routing out expat tax dodgers, and in some cases even imprisoning them. You can expect that to continue and even accelerate under the Hollande administration. The percentage of foreign nationals treated in Spanish hospitals is disproportionately high, although much of that can be attributed to boozy tourists. In the past year several have fallen from hotel balconies to their deaths or serious injury. One drunken young Briton dived into an empty pool this summer.In Spain, however, a great number of expats ignored the taxman for years without being caught but the need for more revenue has brought that ride to an end. Expats in Spain are now being hit with tax bills that they had never seen before and hadn’t budgeted for.
It gets worse. EU expats who settled in Spain were once granted healthcare within the Spanish system under the same conditions as locals. The high cost of providing medical care for millions of expats, some of them chronic drinkers or advanced in age, has become impossible in Spain’s current financial situation with unemployment at well over 20%. The percentage of foreign nationals treated in Spanish hospitals is disproportionately high, although much of that can be attributed to boozy tourists.
Could it happen to expats in France?
For most of the above points, the short answer is “No”. The French are not at all inclined to sell the soul of their country for a handful of foreign silver. So, despite the popularity of Subway, McDonalds and (recently) Starbucks, there’ll be no Blackpool-sur-Mer.
As for property sales, French transactions have always been properly regulated here and the obligatory notaire means that there’s no chance a gullible foreigner can easily be tricked into buying a property that he won’t really own or that was built illegally. The medical exclusion situation that Spain is introducing is already in place in France. EU expats only get the Sécu if they are of retirement age and have previously benefitted from the national health cover of another EU country or Switzerland. The self-employed and salaried are covered by the state system through “social charges” paid to URSSAF. Visiting tourists are covered by their EHIC card if they already have national insurance elsewhere in the EU.
That leaves the non-working but not-yet-retired expats and the ones living here “on the black”. Both groups will need private health insurance – or in the former case – trying to get the CMU which can be applied for but is granted on a case-by-case basis.