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“Don’t panic”, UK ambassador tells Portugal’s 50,000 expats

With the world still reeling over last week’s Brexit vote, the message to UK expats living in Portugal is “don’t panic”. British ambassador Kirsty Hayes has posted a short video on social media to stress that “nothing has changed” vis-a-vis people’s immediate circumstances – although, of course, everything has changed in the long-term. No one knows how expat futures will pan-out post-exit. With calls for referenda coming in now from other European countries – namely Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden – no-one can even safely predict whether the EU will survive. What is clear is that the result has opened up terrible divisions, prompted widespread scare stories in the media and exposed the folly of believing what one reads in newspapers.

According to the UK’s Daily Express of Tuesday, for example, Brexit came just in time. EU leaders are forging ahead in a masterplan for a giant superstate in which “EU countries will lose the right to have their own army, criminal law, taxation system or central bank” as all those powers will be “transferred to Brussels”, says the paper.

Considering this kind of propaganda, response in Portugal has been admirable. Not only has Kirsty Hayes stressed that British nationals can still work and live here as they have always done, taking advantage of Portugal’s health and other social services, “they can still travel freely” and do not need to change their residency status or worry about getting a new passport.

Nothing will change until a new British prime minister triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and even then negotiations are likely to last at least two years, in which Britain will remain part of the European Union, said Hayes.

The British Portuguese Chamber of Commerce (BPPC) has also come out to say “Portugal and the UK will always continue to enjoy strong commercial ties”, and that now is the time for calm.

The flip-side of market fluctuations is that they could bring benefits for Portuguese exports to the UK, thus the BPPC’s bottom-line message – a little like Hayes’ – is “wait for the dust to settle”.

Politicians too are advising against knee-jerk reactions.

Prime minister António Costa said on Friday that the centuries’ old Anglo-Portuguese alliance could weather the storm and would stay intact. “We have the oldest alliance in the world with the United Kingdom and it will carry on long after what will be the departure of the UK from the European Union,” he told reporters.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has warned of the need to “play down the drama” so that “everyone can understand how the future will be processed following the British decision”.

And newspapers, both tabloid and more serious, have been stressing the issues that prompted 17.4 million people in Britain to vote with their feet. With the threat of EU sanctions still hanging over Portugal for its inability to reach Brussels’ deficit targets, there was even talk over the weekend of a referendum here. This was rapidly scotched by President Marcelo, but not before prime minister Costa managed the pithy aside that “unfortunately, the European Commission has disillusioned me enough times already for me to be able to say that it won’t disillusion me again”.

In other words, Portugal may be all for its position in the 27-member club, but it is echoing calls from elsewhere that now is a time for change, if not in direction, certainly in attitude.

Tourism buoyant despite drop in pound

Tourism for 2016 is already set to break all records, and last Friday’s seismic result is unlikely to cause immediate ripples.

“British people will not stop travelling or investing,” Reinaldo Teixeira of Garvetur real estate group said over the weekend, while Algarve tourism boss Desidério Silva said there will not be negative impacts this year, as reservations have already been made.

If the pound remains low, however, this will affect the spending ability of Brits on holiday, though Silva stressed he did not want to be pessimistic.

“The British have always loved the Algarve,” he said.

Concerns over ‘post-referendum racism’

Reports coming out of UK suggest racism has reached new levels of disgrace, with all nationalities under attack.

SIC TV has highlighted the case of Fátima Lourenço, a Portuguese emigré living in South London, who was accosted by a group of youths waving an English flag (“not British, English”, she stressed) the day after the world woke up to Brexit.

The young men spat at her and started shouting: “Go back to your country.”

Passers-by were horrified, Lourenço explained, telling her how ashamed they were of their countrymen, but even so, when she reached her workplace, she said she couldn’t help it: “I cried. I felt so small, so small…”

I Online too has covered incidents involving Portuguese nationals attacked on London’s tube.

Fear has now “increased among the many Portuguese living in UK”, says the paper, to the extent that a group of emigrés is now working towards creating a website where Portuguese expats can “exchange information and try and answer questions from the Portuguese community living in London”.

Social media ablaze

Another aspect of the Brexit vote is that social media commentary has been vitriolic, with endless calls for a repeat referendum. British expats particularly have been expounding on what they feel is the iniquity of the situation, and it appears that some are even considering applying for Portuguese nationality so that they can remain ‘Europeans’.

But as British prime minister David Cameron has been at pains to explain, Britain’s departure from the European Union does not mean that the country intends to shut itself off from Europe. Far from it – and as Kirsty Hayes stressed in her message to expats on social media, signs even on Tuesday were that the economy of Portugal’s oldest ally is “open for business”, and strong enough to face the choppy waters ahead.

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]

Photo: People taking part in an anti-Brexit demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, on June 28 after the UK voted 51.9% in favour of leaving the EU

Photo by: SEAN DEMPSEY/EPA

Editor’s note

And of course, as stated in last week’s cover story of this newspaper, there is still the real possibility that the UK parliament will not ratify the Brexit condition, especially if public opinion has shifted sufficiently by the time a future PM attempts to enact Article 50.

As stated in The Independent last week, we need to remember that Greece’s last referendum decision to refuse more austerity measures was not approved in the Greek parliament.

The referendum result is in no way legally binding and it is up to the UK parliament to finally decide if Britain exits or not.