Brexit: The English TAs in the EU facing a bleak 2021

As Brexit negotiations drag on English TAs in Europe – often classed as volunteers, not workers – face an uncertain future
14th December 2020, 5:06pm
Eloise Barry


Brexit: The English TAs in the EU facing a bleak 2021
The Liberal Democrats Have Warned Over The Costs Faced By Eu Teachers Coming To The Country After Brexit.

Raúl Campa had just started a degree in Hispanic Studies when Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016. As a British citizen with Spanish heritage, he had always considered himself European.

This year, the 24-year-old moved to Spain to teach English and improve his linguistic proficiency. Instead, he is spending his time trying to prove his legal right to remain in the country after 1 January.

Raúl, like myself, is one of the 2,000 young Brits who travelled to Europe in September to support English teaching at schools and colleges. We now face being barred from returning after the Christmas break.

Crossing the channel

Each year, students and recent graduates from the UK are allocated to schools in seven European partner countries on the British Council teaching programme

The majority of English Language Assistants (ELAs) work for the whole academic year, receiving a monthly stipend for their support as a native English speaker in the classroom.

Until recently, the programme has offered a relatively easy way for young people to live and work abroad, improve their foreign language skills, and to get a taste for teaching internationally.

Brexit is set to change everything.

Headaches abound

The European Commission has confirmed that British citizens could be prevented from entering the EU after Brexit owing to coronavirus safety restrictions. From 1 January, EU law will no longer apply to the UK; Brits will be subject to the same restrictions on non-essential travel as third-party countries.

Officially classed as "volunteers" receiving a monthly stipend, ELAs lack the same legal protections granted to salaried employees. Questions remain over whether travel for placements - not work - will be classed as essential travel.

One certainty is that European Health Insurance Cards (EHIC) will become invalid from 1 January, leaving thousands of Brits without health care during the pandemic.

"The local government does technically provide us with private health insurance, but I have yet to receive the insurance card," says Raúl. "I had to pay for a coronavirus test when I had symptoms."

Many countries have established procedures for Brits to obtain proof of residency in the EU during the Transition Period - but the application processes vary hugely between countries, and even local regions.

Long processes

In Spain, for example, the recently introduced application process for Brits is a two-step process, the first of which can take up to three months.

As one of 1,000 ELAs allocated to Spain by the British Council, I work in a primary school in Alicante. 

After two appointments with immigration, I thought I had managed to complete the process. This week, however, I was turned away when I tried to collect my residency card. I was told to try again in five weeks as the office is overloaded with applications in a pre-Brexit rush.

Other ELAs in Spain have struggled to even get an appointment.

"For a while appointments were released once a week, but competition was so fierce they were all snapped up immediately," Raúl says. "In Alicante, you have to go to the appointment in-person, whereas in other regions they're doing it online."

"I recently found out that there have been no appointments released for at least six weeks, as there has been such high demand."

As placements began in October, ELAs in Spain have only had three months to apply for residency before the end of the Withdrawal Period. In the context of the pandemic, the process is even more stressful.

Raúl says, "I've had to deal with this while struggling with my own mental health, an unstable living situation, and unsafe working conditions at my school where Covid safety measures are not being followed."

A daunting situation

Lacking the necessary proof of residency to guarantee his return, Raúl has decided to remain abroad over Christmas: "I feel it's better to stay in Spain at least until the situation becomes clearer. This will be my first Christmas away from my family - it's a difficult decision but I don't want to risk anything."

The bureaucracy involved in the residency process can be daunting for young ELAs who have never lived abroad before. 

Tom, 20, is another going through this stressful process - this time in Parma, Italy.

After having applied for a Social Security Number and registering his address at the Italian Revenue Agency, he then had to wait 45 days for his residency application to be checked over by his local municipality.

"The Italian system is known for delays, but Covid and Brexit have made the system virtually impossible to navigate. The offices of my local municipality have been working almost entirely online, meaning that help is hard to come by."

Tom says that while he appreciates the help of the British Council and the Italian Ministry of Education in assisting with immigration matters, he says he and other ELAs feel they have "been left to fend for ourselves".


Other ELAs are more regretful of their decision to move to Europe in the midst of so much uncertainty. Robyn, 20, says she knew that moving from a city in the UK to a small town in Southern Italy would be challenging. 

But the reality was much harder than she anticipated.

"When the second wave of coronavirus began to spike, my region moved into an orange zone, meaning no one was allowed in or out of Puglia. Because of the coronavirus situation, travel was even more limited than before and there weren't any social events on for me to meet new people.

"I didn't have as much opportunity to practice my language as I would have liked. I ended up spending a lot of time on my own. The deadline to apply for residency was an added pressure and something I felt I couldn't cope with."

Despite feelings of isolation and frustration with the faceless bureaucratic processes, Robyn found solace in her workplace.

"What makes this experience easier for me is my school," she says. "I am grateful that the staff are so kind and supportive because I don't know what I would do if they weren't."

Schools lose out, too

It is not just TAs that are frustrated and concerned about this. 

A full-time English teacher at Spanish school CFPA Arco Iris, Rafael Morales, says the value of the English language assistants should not be overlooked. "Having a native speaker of English is vital in teaching cultural and linguistic nuances of the language," he says.

"In terms of cultural interchange, having a foreign person broadens the students' perception of the world and makes them question not only this person's cultural background but also their own."

However, he is concerned the outcome will mean a loss of these key staff - and opportunities for the ELAs.

"If Brexit prevented the ELAs from going ahead with their work, it would really be a step in the wrong direction. People helping one another should always take precedence over bigger economic or political needs."

No say in their future

While some ELAs are having better experiences than others, what unites them is the extraordinary situation. The excitement of moving and working abroad has been marred by a situation which none of the ELAs wanted.

It has been estimated that 73 per cent of people under the age of 24 voted for Britain to remain in the EU. In 2016, Tom and Robyn were not even old enough to contribute to a decision that would prove so influential in their university careers.

"I was only 16 at the time of the vote, and the result was announced on the day of my final GCSE exam," says Tom. 

"Of course, no one could have imagined that over four years down the line, we would still be waiting for any kind of clarity about Britain's future. I didn't realise that I'd still be waiting." 

Eloise Barry is a freelance journalist and English Language Assistant based in Spain

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