Throughout France’s Dordogne region, dotted with châteaux and vineyards, and home to some of the country’s finest delicacies, British retirees are living the European dream.
In the northern part of the Dordogne, Bernie Bannon is adding cement to the stone wall of the old barn he and his wife have renovated into a luxury home. Farther south, amid rolling hills, Ian and Julie Long, from Portsmouth, England, are searching for the right place. In the town of Eymet, where a third of residents in the area are British, the Café des Arts is filled with English-language banter of retirees drawn to a slower pace, more space, and a kinder clime.
But Britain’s choice to leave the European Union has clouded these retirement horizons. For all the impact that “Brexit” has had on EU nationals residing in Britain, it has also thrown the fates of hundreds of thousands of British nationals in the EU into uncertainty.
Within the EU, Britain counts the most foreigners living abroad, according to United Nations population data crunched by Metrocosm. Among them are thousands of pensioners. Just like the Erasmus students who have turned European study abroad into a rite of passage, a generation of northern retirees in the past 30 years has taken full advantage of EU freedom of movement in the search for a better quality of life.
“For a long time there have been no real barriers for them to retire abroad,” says Maria Casado-Diaz, an expert in retirement migration at the University of the West of England in Bristol. “Now they are in the exact same situation as EU migrants in the UK, which is a heightened insecurity. A lot of older people in Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy never thought they would have to worry about this kind of thing.”
When it comes to settling in the EU, British nationals have chosen Spain (300,000), Ireland (300,000), and France (200,000) as their top choices. France’s Dordogne, a battleground of the Hundred Years War, is so popular it is jokingly dubbed Dordogneshire. The bastide town of Eymet, with its central market and half-timbered homes, is ground zero. The area was even chosen for a reality TV series on British expats called “Little England” in 2011. Up to 10,000 “Brexpats” are estimated to populate this region.
Some here say they might have changed their plans to retire south had Brexit preceded their relocation. “It might have done,” says Adrian Cattermole, who runs the Café des Arts with his wife since their retirement here two years ago, “because of the fear of the unknown.”
“But now we are here,” he adds. “We just said, ‘we’re gonna stay whatever.’ If we have to become French, we become French – that is fine.”
Not everyone is as blithe about it – currently because of the value of the British pound, which has slumped by 12 percent against the euro since Brexit.
“It is dropping like a stone at the moment,” says Hadley Hasted-Holt of her pension as a court clerk. “We are of an age in which we have put a heck of a lot into it. We prepared for it, and we paid in, and we took insurances so that we weren’t a ‘burden,’” says Ms. Hasted-Holt, who moved to the Eymet area five years ago from Cambridge. “And then all of a sudden, those who have paid don’t seem to get anything out of it.”
Fluctuations have hit fixed pensions before, but Brexit brings unknowns: about visas, drivers’ licenses, and access to health systems. Fear has gotten the best of some as they anticipate what an official divorce from the EU will look like, says Roger Haigh, who represents the Dordogne region at the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce and Industry. A top concern for pensioners, for example, is their healthcare.
But he says those rules are governed by bilateral agreements that Brexit wouldn’t impact. “We better get used to bilateral agreements,” he says. “To think the two countries won’t at one time or another agree on things is just scaremongering.”
Still, uncertainty weighs especially heavily, says John Beynon, who retired in the Dordogne after moving for his job to France in the 1970s. “They have come down here just to settle down, get a pension check every month, enjoy,” Mr. Beynon says. “And of course the older you get, the less you like uncertainty.”
Many retirees in the Dordogne, like David Cowan, say they have no intention of leaving – especially because of Brexit. “We do see a trend in Britain of quite a rise in right-wing thinking,” says Mr. Cowan, who is president of South West Left, a local group of expats who are left of center politically. “That is not something I feel comfortable with.”
At a real estate office off a main street of Eymet, agent Jane Seedwell is fielding a call about a possible home sale. She says she has received more queries from Britons wanting to relocate out of the UK since Brexit, far more than from those wanting to return home. In fact, for those here, anger at the UK has grown.
“There have been no moves to reassure those people who live in Europe,” she says. “It is almost like they are saying, ‘you decided to go, so tough luck,’” she says. “They are the ones who changed the terms on us.”
She says she doesn’t understand the anti-foreigner rhetoric coming from Britain. It makes no economic sense to swap people who want to live and work there, she says, with people like herself, who do not want to live there, or like her mother, who is retired and dependent on the health system.
In the end, she says, she does believe, as do Mr. Haigh and most Britons here, that common sense will prevail.
As Mr. Bannon puts it, employing a good dose of British understatement: “I would prefer Brexit not to have happened,” he says, shrugging as he steps down from his ladder. “But it’s happened, so we must carry on.”