BENIDORM, Spain—Tad Dawson’s pub in this Spanish vacation town was doing a brisk business in the summer sun. The only dark clouds he saw were coming from the bar’s TV, tuned to a British news channel.
Inside the Yorkshire Pride were many British tourists watching the screen as their prime minister announced his resignation Friday after the U.K. voted to leave the European Union.
Dawson, a 51-year-old Englishman who has lived in Spain since the 1990s, admits the decoupling of Britain from the EU other 27 member nations has him spooked.
His future is suddenly uncertain.
“We’re very scared because I’ve been here 23 years. I’ve got my house, my kids were born here, they went to a British-Spanish school, I’ve got a bar, I’ve got a lot to lose,” Dawson said at his pub, which was decked out with the red-and-white English flags featuring the St. George’s Cross.
EU leaders are due soon to begin unprecedented—and knotty—negotiations on how to extricate the U.K. from the bloc. Crucially for British expatriates, EU laws stipulate that the bloc’s citizens have the same rights as those nationals in any other member nation.
Nobody is saying what the rights of Britons living in the EU might be in a future outside the bloc. Dawson worries about losing his entitlements in Spain, which is part of the EU.
“We don’t know how we’re going to be now,” he said. “We might have no pension. We might have no medical. We may have to sell our properties. We’ve lived here for a lot of years. We don’t know how it’s going to affect us anymore.”
An estimated 1.2 million Britons live in other EU countries, many of them in France, Spain and Portugal, according to Britain’s House of Commons library. But analysts reckon the true number could be at least double that—and maybe a lot more, because many don’t bother registering with their embassies or the local authorities.
Raquel Martins, an immigration lawyer at the Lisbon, Portugal, law firm of SRS Advogados, said the United Kingdom and the EU would now enter many months of negotiations to try to secure a reciprocity agreement that establishes legal guarantees for their citizens who live abroad.
“Nothing will happen right now. Nobody is going to be sent home,” she said. “What would make sense in my eyes is for there to be some kind of give-and-take and an agreement on reciprocal safeguards.”
Across Europe, British expats reacted with alarm, dismay and sadness after Thursday’s referendum on Britain’s EU exit, also known as Brexit.
“I am in a state of shock,” said Patrick Lamb, a standup comedian who has lived in Austria for 17 years. “I am also concerned by what Brexit means for the longer-term future. The world seems very unstable.”
In Berlin, Dale Carr from Sheffield in northern England said she would request German nationality. She said she, her Scottish husband and her two British-passport holding children would apply for German citizenship to keep their EU entitlements.
“Otherwise, we have no rights. What am I to do with this British passport?” asked the 63-year-old who moved to Germany in 1978 and runs two British goods shops called Broken English.
Ian Tilling, the British chairman of the Casa Ioana charity for the homeless in Bucharest, said he felt an urge to “go off and burn my passport.” He ticked off his pressing concerns: that Scotland would seek independence from the U.K. so it could stay in the EU; that the United States would neglect relations with the U.K. in favor of the more powerful EU; and that the EU itself might break up further.
Sheila MacDonald, a retiree from Edinburgh who lives in Portugal’s southern Algarve region, said local British expats are worried about forfeiting their access to Portuguese public health services and being unable to renew documents such as residence permits.
Looming larger for MacDonald, however, is the value of the British currency. She, like many retired expats, lives on a U.K. pension that is sent in pounds. She has to exchange that income to the euro, which is used in Portugal. After the referendum result was announced, the pound fell to its lowest level since 1985 amid financial market concerns that the outcome will hurt the U.K. economy.
“I’m looking at very reduced financial resources, and I’m not the only one,” MacDonald said.
She also fears becoming stranded, since she wouldn’t be able to move back to Britain because property prices there are much higher than in the Algarve, where she figures her apartment is worth about 100,000 euros ($110,000).
“What would I get in England for my apartment here? It would get me a garage,” she said.
On the other hand, Richard Mills, who runs British real estate agency Azul Properties in the Algarve, predicted that elderly expats who were already thinking of moving back home could speed up their plans in order to take advantage of a Portuguese law granting a capital gains tax exemption if property sales are reinvested in real estate elsewhere in the EU.
There were no currency worries among Britons in the United Arab Emirates, where they are one of the largest groups of expatriates. For those earning foreign currency, the British pound overnight became a lot cheaper to buy, though it was small comfort for some who fear broader problems.
“The one bonus, I guess, is that transferring money back to the U.K. suddenly became a whole lot easier, but that really pales in significance when you consider the wider situation,” said Charlie Miller, a 24-year-old from West Berkshire who works in advertising in Dubai. “The Brexit hangover has only just begun.”