A British couple living in Greece for many years describe the chaos that Brexit brought to the lives. The changes that had to be made, the battles with Greek bureaucracy, the frustration of being deprived of political rights.
“I hope the 17.4 million people who voted to leave, and that figure isn’t even a quarter of the UK population, are happy with what they have so far achieved. We certainly aren’t,” says Tony Cross.
By Tony Cross
When we woke on the morning of June 24, 2016 we discovered to our horror that our lives had changed forever.
As British citizens permanently living aboard our sailing yacht in Greece, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union meant that we would soon lose all the rights that enabled us to be here. Five years later, and with Brexit apparently done and dusted, we’re still suffering the fallout from that fateful decision.
The Brexit vote threw the British expat community here into a complete panic. At the time of the vote none of us knew what it would really mean for us. Would we be able to remain living in Greece? What would happen to our healthcare? Would we have to take a Greek driving test? In the absence of any reliable information, rumours and “fake news” ran riot.
One or two people even decided to return to live in the UK.
In a sense my wife and I had a head start on most of our peers because in 2012, at the height of the Greek Euro crisis, we decided to register ourselves as resident in Greece, in case the “Grexit” that everyone was talking about at the time actually happened. We thus obtained the buff-colored “temporary EU resident” card in a fairly painless process at our local police office long before it became important to have one.
Years later we discovered that once we’d been resident in Greece for at least five years we could convert our buff “temporary EU resident” card into a blue “permanent EU resident” card. Thinking that we should fully comply with all the rules in order not to adversely affect our right to stay, we duly converted our buff card into the permanent blue one in February 2018.
That decision turned out to be a double-edged sword.
Brexit and bureaucracy in Greece
Although we’d had no official notification about the status of driving licenses post-Brexit it seemed wise for us to exchange our UK licenses for Greek ones while we were still able to do so as EU citizens. We began the process to exchange ours in May 2018, while there was still plenty of time to iron out any potential problems.
That could only be done at the local provincial authority’s offices, so having filled in the relevant forms, paid the necessary e-paravalos, obtained a certificate of health from our doctor and had an eye test, we presented ourselves at the appointed time to the one lady in the whole building who was able to deal with driving licenses.
She was somewhat less than happy to see us.
Brexit had resulted in a near-deluge of UK citizens wanting to swap their licenses while they could still do so easily and she was the only person able to do that for the entire prefecture. Her workload had likely increased a thousand-fold!
After scanning all our forms she asked for proof of residence and we proudly proffered our new five year “permanent EU resident” cards.
That’s when it all began to unravel.
She told us that we couldn’t exchange our licenses until we’d lived in Greece for at least six months. We calmly explained that we’d been living here for over five years as the blue cards attested. She then pointed to the date on our blue cards — it was February 2018 and less than six months ago. Even though she accepted that it wasn’t possible to get a blue card until you had been resident in Greece for five years, she insisted that she had to use the date on the card and it was less than six months old!
This would not be the first time we would run into the stubborn intransigence of the unthinking, box-ticking members of the Greek civil service.
We did get our licenses exchanged finally in August of 2018, but even then she wasn’t quite done with us. Our UK licenses allowed us to drive a variety of vehicles in addition to a car. We could tow a trailer for example, or drive a small truck, and I had a motorbike license.
The lady stated quite firmly that she would only give us a Greek license for a car and if we wanted any of the others adding on we would have to pay for them. I forget the actual cost but to retain exactly the same categories on our Greek license as we had on our UK ones would have cost in excess of 400 Euros!
Since all we ever drive now is a car we elected not to pay the extra and settled for what she was prepared to give us. We’d learned by then that you can’t reason with Greek bureaucracy, it will just roll right over you if you don’t comply.
Brexit and Healthcare
Once the Withdrawal Agreement had been concluded in October 2019 things became a lot clearer. The most important provisions for expats were that those UK citizens already resident in the EU could stay permanently and the existing reciprocal healthcare arrangements would continue.
Since we both receive a state pension from the UK we’re entitled to use what’s known as the S1 form to obtain standard Greek healthcare (ΕΦΚΑ) which is paid for by the NHS in the UK. We’ve both been using ΕΦΚΑ under the S1 form provisions for many years now and that this arrangement would continue was hugely important.
Biometric residence cards
The exchange of our blue permanent EU residence cards into the biometric residence cards was as painless as Greece could have made it. It certainly seems to have been considerably easier for us here than for EU citizens in the UK. When I read in the news about how difficult the UK seems to be making things for EU residents there I’m embarrassed to be British.
The process of issuing permanent residence cards was handled by the police and they were the most pleasant and helpful of all the public servants we came across. The appointment times they made were adhered to — that’s quite rare in Greece — and they went out of their way to make us feel wanted and welcome and make the whole process as painless as possible.
One aspect of applying for these biometric cards that upset a fair number of expats was the requirement for us all to be fingerprinted. Our fingerprints are apparently stored on the chip on the card. I don’t know why some expats objected so strongly but it may have been because large numbers had been “living under the radar.”
We were finally fully legal resident in Greece as citizens of a third country, but that wasn’t to be the end of the disruption to our lives that Brexit would cause.
Democracy — or lack of — for British living in Greece
As EU citizens we were entitled to vote in municipal elections in Greece, though not in national elections. We were also able to vote for a Greek MEP.
Being able to have a voice in the local government of the towns and regions where we actually lived was important. The people elected to these positions directly affect our day to day lives.
Currently Greece does not extend voting rights to legal permanent residents and since we’re no longer EU citizens we have lost our right to elect a Greek MEP as well. Even though we live in the EU we no longer have any say at all in the way the EU functions nor in the way our local municipality functions.
We still have the right to vote in UK elections, but that right is worthless. The only way we can vote is either by proxy or personally via a postal vote. The UK postal voting system was not set up for expats and our experience has been that the voting forms are sent out far too late. We have asked for a postal vote twice since we’ve been living in Greece but in both cases the voting forms didn’t arrive until the day before the election. There was no way for us to post them back to arrive in time to be counted.
Brexit has thus disenfranchised us completely. We are citizens of a country whose systems don’t enable us to vote and we have now been denied the right to vote locally in the country where we live. Whatever happened to “no taxation without representation”?
Shopping online in Greece after Brexit
With the UK now a third country all imports to Greece from the UK attract Greek VAT. Nobody minds that of course and it’s becoming increasingly easier to buy goods VAT-free from the UK as long as they are for export.
The problem is that many of the major courier companies in Greece operate what I believe to be nothing short of a scam. They’ve been operating this scam for decades now with goods from other third-party countries, but it’s only since Brexit that they use it on goods arriving from the UK as well.
As mentioned, a courier company will hold on to anything arriving from the UK and ask the recipient to pay the Greek VAT. While that’s all fine, they also add on extortionate handling and storage charges. It’s not unusual to find that the fee that the Greek courier company demands exceeds the value of the items in the package! If you tell them that you don’t want it now and to send it back they will still charge you the storage and handling fee and will then add on what they claim is the cost of sending it back.
Unsurprisingly we now no longer buy anything from the UK, or we find other ways of getting packages into Greece that enables us to pay the required VAT but avoid the courier company scam.
Our online shopping is now done in other EU countries and the expat community is sharing the details of online EU retailers that offer the same or similar products as major UK companies. We no longer use amazon.co.uk for example, because of the Greek courier company charges. Instead we use amazon.de; they offer largely the same products and since the sales occurs in the EU, the Greek courier companies are obliged to send it straight on.
Being permanently resident is Greece is all well and good for us; we now live in an apartment ashore, but what about our friends who still live aboard their yachts? They can also obtain Greek residence, and many have, but they are now limited by the 90 in 180 days rule when they visit other EU countries.
It’s thus now impossible for live-aboards to spend their summers cruising wherever they like in the Mediterranean. They now have to watch the clock and rush back to Greece or across to Turkey or the (more dangerous) North African countries in order to avoid overstaying in the EU.
The Mediterranean live-aboard lifestyle for UK citizens is now pretty much impossible post-Brexit, unless you’re prepared to limit your cruising area to whichever country in which you obtained residence.
We might only be talking about a few thousand — mostly retired — people but these are people who have had their right to enjoy a lifestyle that was once available to them ripped away through no fault of their own to satisfy the political ambitions of a few and the xenophobic knee-jerk reactions of the many.
I don’t pretend to understand the politics of Brexit but it does look to me like a bad case of navel gazing. I hope the 17.4 million people who voted to leave, and that figure isn’t even a quarter of the UK population, you might note, are happy with what they have so far achieved. We certainly aren’t.