MANY British expats in Spain are increasingly anxious about the outcome of the EU referendum. A recent Cabinet Office report warned that Brexit might mean they would lose “a range of specific rights to live, to work, and to access pensions, healthcare and public services that are only guaranteed because of EU law”.

Acting Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warned that the consequences of the UK leaving would be “negative for everybody”, and especially British citizens, “who would lose their right to move freely, to work, to do business” in his country and across the EU.

Spain will hold its own general election on June 26. The question of how the winning party might respond to the result only added to the air of uncertainty along the Costa Blanca, a particularly popular region for British retirees and holidaymakers. In Daya Vieja, an expat enclave near Alicante, Glaswegians Steven and Sheila Fawcett say they were now “very worried”.

“We’re certainly nervous about the position we could be in if the UK votes out,” said Sheila in the afternoon sun, drinking a “bomba” (brandy and hot chocolate). “What if we suddenly had to show 500,000 euros in the bank to be allowed to live here? What if Spain starts really taxing owners of holiday homes? What if we weren’t entitled to free health cover any more?”

Current EU mechanisms allow for UK citizens to receive reciprocal medical treatment through the NHS by way of the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Steven said he had an accident recently and needed treatment on his Achilles tendon. “I didn’t have my EHIC on me and I got a bill for £4000,” he said. “It was sorted out in the end, but if expats were looking at those kinds of bills it would be a very different story here.”

Like many in their position, the Fawcetts have never formally registered as residents of their host country. This makes it hard to know exactly how many Britons are now based in Spain – the real number is estimated to be at least three times higher than the official UN figure of 309,000.

Of the dozens living in Daya Vieja, Steven and Sheila said they weren’t aware of any who would be voting to leave. Their neighbours John and Joan Kennedy, both from Dennistoun, share the same concerns. Joan has suffered from heart problems, and John said they found the standard of care in local hospitals to be “far higher than anything we would get on the NHS”.

His big worry is the lack of assurances from the Leave camp about the security of UK pension provisions.

“As far as I can see,” said Sheila, “the ‘out’ campaign isn’t offering anything solid at all.” She thinks that the terms of EU membership “should be changed”, but remembers the benefits of joining back in 1973, especially as regards employment rights for women.

“When I started work in Glasgow before we were part of Europe, a man doing the same job might have been getting [thousands] more than me. Almost as soon as we joined my salary went right up.” For these reasons and others, all four Scots have already cast their votes for “remain”.

Local estate agent Belinda Coghill is not entitled to vote at all. Originally from Gloucestershire, she first moved to Spain with her parents in 1978. Any British citizen living outside the UK for more than 15 years has been excluded from the vote.

Her husband Robert is from Newcastle, and also an estate agent. While his own period of residence puts him just within the 15-year limit, he admitted that he took “less interest in the UK” than many expats. Their children, all born in Spain and now aged 9, 10 and 11, took even less, despite being British passport holders.

“They call themselves Spanish,” said Belinda. “To them, ‘British’ is an insult.” Robert tells a story about his oldest son and friends getting in trouble for picking on a Moroccan classmate. “I asked him what it was about, and he said, ‘well, he’s a foreigner’.

“I told him, ‘so are you’. And he said, ‘no I’m not’, so I showed him his British passport. He was absolutely horrified.” As parents, the Coghills’ biggest doubt about the referendum was whether their children would retain the same legal status in the event of a leave vote.

“It’s their birthright to live in Spain,” said Belinda. “The question is whether that would change if they weren’t classed as Europeans any more? Nobody knows what’s going to happen after the vote.” From a business point of view, the Coghills have found that the upcoming vote is making potential property buyers more hesitant.

“With the referendum all over the news, people suddenly went ‘aaaah’ and now nobody’s buying,” said Robert. “They want to wait and see what happens.”

Belinda thinks a vote to leave will probably put off Britons from buying holiday homes in Spain. “I’d say it will be too much hassle after that, too much red tape.” She thought the retirees would still come though, pending any change to pension and healthcare arrangements. “But those changes might take years to implement, and a lot of the older ones might be dead by the time they get everything sorted out.”

Down the street at local restaurant Casa Campisano, Spanish owner Jaime Campisano estimated that about 50% of his regulars are British. “Obviously I don’t want to lose them,” he said. “And I think it will be catastrophic if people have to leave, for Spain and for the UK too.”

To the north, in the busy resort of Benidorm, Jack Troughton edits an English-language newspaper called Round Town News. In recent weeks Troughton has become actively involved in referendum-related debates among readers, and arguments about the issue on local radio.

Originally from Cumbria, he personally feels the EU is “problematic, but too big and important a market to opt out of”, and sent his ballot papers back last week in favour of Remain. By Troughton’s reckoning this puts him in a two-thirds majority among fellow expats.

“That’s a rough guess based on letters and email,” he said, “but from the people I speak to, I’d say about a third want out. And that’s where you start to hear the old bureaucratic, bendy-banana type arguments about EU rules and regulations.”

Many of those Brexit supporters, he said, were particularly exercised on the matter of UK border controls and immigration.

“It’s a funny thing, but ‘immigrant’ is often used as a word for people they don’t like. They call themselves ‘expats’ and think of that as a completely different thing.”

Few, he said, believed the dire warnings that a Brexit would mean the loss of their own EU-secured rights to live and work in other member states. “It just seems too extreme,” said Troughton. “Nobody really thinks that Spain will throw out the fatted calf.”

Just over 100km south in the slightly smaller resort city of Torrevieja, proud UKIP-voter and self-described “Brexiter” Jacqueline Jackson put this in much stronger terms.

“Do the Spanish honestly want to be scrabbling in the dirt eating worms?” she asked. “Because that’s what they’ll be doing if we go. All their shops would close down. They think youth unemployment is bad now, but it would be at 100% if the Brits had to leave.”

She goes on: “Spain has never given me a penny - whereas I’ve been spending about 1000 euros a month in Spain since we bought our first property here in 2000.”

Originally from Portsmouth, where she and her husband owned a 67-acre farm and equestrian centre, Jackson first became disenchanted with the EU when Brussels directives began effect agriculture. In her view, the common market has done “nothing at all” for the wellbeing of anyone in the UK except “the rich and the elites”.

“A deal that benefits Volkswagen never seems to filter down to the little man, does it?” An independent Britain, as Jackson sees it, would be free to spend its own revenues on roads, schools and hospitals, and “especially on the borders”.

“Polish, Lithuanian, Slovakian families are coming in with six, seven, eight kids, and plonking themselves on the council housing lists, when you’ve got British families relying on food banks, and young people, like my own kids, who can’t earn enough to get a mortgage.

“Free movement of labour is a great thing, but free movement of illiterate breeders is a terrible thing.”

To Jackson, this is not xenophobia, and there is no irony or contradiction in adopting such a position as an immigrant from the southeast coast of Spain. “I’ve travelled a lot, and I’ve seen what’s happened to the poor people of Greece and Italy. Those were beautiful countries and the EU has ruined them. I love Europe, I just hate the EU.”

By her own estimation, 70% of expats she meets around Torrevieja “can’t wait to get out of it”. “We can’t work out why anyone would want to stay in. I think, in the end, more people are patriots than not, and that will show in the results. Brits want to be British, Spaniards want to be Spanish.”