Home James and don’t spare the excuses!

December 2010 The Expat Telegraph published an article I had written called Thoroughly Modern Expats.

For a number of years following I was a regular monthly columist for them.

Reading through the original articles that I submitted recently, I was taken by a) how relevant many of them still are today, and b) I had no online record of them of my own.

So I have added the original submissions to this blog, so if you want to read more of them just search for telegrapharticles, and while you are at it you may want to search for expatarticles as well to see other columns I wrote in the past for various newspapers in Spain.

A common theme from recent comments left on previous articles is that Expats have chosen to live in Spain, and if they don’t like it they should put up, shut up, or go back to the UK.

On the surface it is hard to argue against that sentiment, and it is fair to say that very few do when comments along those lines are left, but in reality while the sentiment may be hard to disagree with, what about the facts?

Broadly speaking I tend to consider expats in Spain fall into one of three categories: those that have moved over with their families to work for a company as they further their careers, pensioners who have opted to spend their twilight years enjoying the sunshine of Spain, and the rest which is an eclectic mix of people who have moved to Spain for a variety of reasons, with the shared objective of making enough money to get by on, while enjoying a change in lifestyle.

Realistically with Spain’s chronic skills shortage and declining education system, the dream is far from over for the career expat, so we can discount them from the apparent hordes of expats that would return to the UK ‘given the chance’. Of the eclectic mix (I will return to the pensioners in due course), it is hard to see what the UK offers them now that it didn’t offer them years ago when they moved away: better job prospects, cheaper cost of living, better quality of life? I don’t think so. In my experience the majority of this group are here in Spain, not because they really wanted to be in Spain, rather that they didn’t want to be in the UK. For many in this group the ‘change of lifestyle’ seems to be based around English Bars, English Supermarkets and English Communities. About the only thing that is different is the sun in Spain and the (still) lower prices, so I can’t see too many of them heading for the easyJet and Ryan Air check in counters.

Which leaves us with the expat pensioners, for many of whom the ‘party is over’ as falling house prices, an unfavorable exchange rate and a Spanish economy in ‘ruins’ have seen those that can return head back home, leaving the rest ‘trapped’ according to a whole host of recent headlines.

Which brings me to the facts.

In one article I read recently a pensioner was quoted as saying “my plans were to stay here for 10 years, but I sold up everything in the UK, so I can’t go back”, which I am afraid begs the question: why? Not why can’t you go back as selling a property in Spain at the moment is tough, unless you want to give it away for peanuts, but why if you were only planning to be somewhere for ten years would you sell everything and invest in a property abroad. Property appreciates in value over time, but during that time prices fluctuate, always have and always will, so why only give yourself ten years to see prices rise and not fall? Another pensioner was quoted as saying the cost of living has soared, which I sort of agreed with until I read “corned beef prices in our local Iceland have gone through the roof!”

The most cited reason though that pensioners, and to be fair most expats, give for wanting to go back is the exchange rate. Gone are the days of the 1.50€ exchange rate, and while it is better than it was when it reached virtual parity with the £, 1.22€ isn’t exactly great, but is it that bad? As with any financial market, exchange rates fluctuate. To expect it to remain at 1.50€ for ever and a day was at best naive. If, for arguments sake, people has based their decisions on a reasonable fluctuation, say 1.35€ then in reality how much of a difference would 1.22€ actually make?

It seems to me that if people had sold up but rented, invested their money and used the exchange rates to their advantage they could actually be better off rather than worse off. That being the case the reason that they are trapped is as much, if not more, to do with the decisions that they made, than the mess that Spain finds itself in.

And really, just how big a mess is Spain in relative to the rest of the World, and in particular the UK?

The new Prime Minister Rajoy in his first 100 days has introduced the new labour reforms, has introduced health and educational reforms aimed as saving money, has started to get to grips with the excessive regional government spending, and has introduced cut backs in public sector spending. The banks remain solvent, with Santander the largest bank in the Eurozone, and a little heard of Spanish company called Ferrovial, instrumental in the turn around in Heathrow Airports performance. Spain’s debt is actually lower than both Germany and France, and with a central government debt to GDP ratio of 68.5% it is better off than Britain, who sit at 79.9%.

Of course this doesn’t mean that Spain isn’t in a mess, just that it isn’t the only country to have been living beyond it’s means, and it certainly isn’t the largest culprit. Despite the many doom merchants it is difficult to see the Euro failing, it is just too big and too much has been invested in it, and bear in mind that Michael Heseltine recently predicted that Britain would join the Euro “if it survives”.

All of which brings me to the opinion that returning to the UK for many, even if they could, would be a classic case of ‘frying pan into fire’.

It should be noted at this point that while many expats wish they could return home, not all that are going back are happy. Joanna Simm is heading back to the UK with a heavy heart “We’re not going back because life as an Expat didn’t work out. Sadly, it’s problems with a property in England that have necessitated the move. When those problems go away, we’ll be back!” Joanna though is one of the fortunate ones. A fellow writer she pays the bills writing for the property web site, French Property Links, and an understanding boss is keeping her on, while her husband is going to commute from the UK and continue with his current job. “There are upsides to going back. I will enjoy being close to my four kids again, and with grandchildren beginning to arrive it becomes more important than ever to be able to be around. I look forward too to meeting up with old friends, a good few of whom have kept in close contact” says Joanna who says she has no regrets at all about her time abroad.

Joanna will be returning to a UK that just entered into a double dip recession, where the streets frequently fill with people protesting the austerity measures. Throw in the water shortage, fuel shortage (or not depending on who you believe) and the looming issue of paying for the summer Olympics and it hard to see what makes the UK more attractive now for expats wanting to return.

I am sorry if this sounds harsh but I think that for many saying they want to return it is the consequence of an ill thought out decision to move to Spain in the first place, and I would suggest that the decision to return is as equally ill thought through, and being blunt, in many cases a ‘convenient excuse’ to cover up the fact that moving to Spain was a mistake, a failure, and that rather than take responsibility for that they are playing the ‘blame culture’ card and blaming the current financial woes that the majority of the world, not just Spain, are struggling with.

Please feel free to search on Google for the published versions of these columns.

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