INTERVIEW: Protecting citizens’ rights is top priority, says British Ambassador

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BRITISH AMBASSADOR: The rights of British expatriates will be protected. Photo: British Embassy - Cathy Elelman


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ENSURING the rights of British expatriates will be protected, deal or no deal Brexit, is a top priority, British Ambassador to Spain Simon Manley has made clear.

Speaking exclusively to the Euro Weekly News during a visit to Almeria the day after the British Parliament’s crushing defeat of Theresa May’s Brexit deal, the Ambassador gave his views on the latest developments in the ongoing Brexit saga and the significance for British expatriate residents in Spain.

Simon Manley commented also on the issue of illegal properties, and spoke about his time in office as the UK’s foremost diplomatic representative in this country.

Is a no-deal Brexit a possibility following the British Parliament’s rejection of Mrs May’s deal, meaning a hard and potentially chaotic UK departure from the EU, or is the Prime Minister going to be able to come up with a plan which will be backed by British MPs and the EU?

Yesterday’s vote was a disappointment. We think the deal we reached with our European partners is a good deal. It’s not an ideal deal, but it is a good deal, and the European Union has been very clear it’s the only deal.

I think in terms of British nationals here it’s a particularly good deal because it gives the utmost legal certainty. The things embodied in that withdrawal agreement in respect of citizens’ rights are not new – they’re within the political agreements we reached back in December 2017 and then again in March 2018. But the importance of the withdrawal agreement is that it embodies those agreements, the guarantees about the continuity of citizens’ rights in an international legal treaty, and therefore gives you greater force of law. So that’s why particularly in respect to citizens’ rights we want to ensure that we get that deal.

It is true to say that the risk of no-deal has risen as a result of yesterday’s vote. As the Prime Minister made clear it is not, has not been and will not be the Government’s intention to leave without a deal, and the Government will strive to come to a deal which can have the support of the House of Commons.

What I would say is the good news for British nationals living here is that we have said, as a Government, that we will protect the rights of EU 27 nationals in the UK, deal or no deal, and now the Spanish Government has come up a with a similar statement of intent and has published details of that in the form of a basis of what will become a royal decree, and establishing a website which went live on Monday.

I’d like to think that’s partly the fruit of discussions we’ve been having with the Spanish Government. It is fair to say there are areas where we’d like a bit more clarity on what is intended, and we’ll be doing that over the next few days.

So even if there is a no-deal Brexit, there would be bi-lateral agreements with Spain on citizens’ rights?

We’re looking to ensure the Spanish offer is genuinely reciprocal of what we’re doing in the UK.

We want to make sure people can enjoy the same rights and benefits in the two countries: we’re quite well advanced in our planning as to how to give effect to that commitment.

At the heart of that lies the EU Settlement Scheme, by which EU27 and EEA nationals currently resident in the UK will be able to register so as to give them a status which will guarantee those rights and their access to those rights. At the heart of our discussions with the Spanish Government is exactly what the process would be here.

And as you know, our advice to British residents here in Spain is that the most important thing they can do right now is register.

Is it the only thing British residents can do at this stage?

It’s not the only thing, but it is the most important thing. If you look at the withdrawal treaty it’s looking at people who are legally resident, so it’s really important people have that proof of legal residency.

If they haven’t done it already, to go to ‘Extranjería’ and get the green card. Useful also to be on the ‘padron’. Other things you can usefully do: if you’re still driving on a British driving licence it’s good to swap that for a Spanish driving licence.

But at the very heart of what we’re saying is residency.

I would also say to your readers that you as a newspaper, and other parts of the expatriate press, are doing a great job of keeping people informed.

If people want to be informed in ‘quicker time’, do sign up to our living in Spain guide on the Government website gov.uk. We’re also pushing out a lot on social media channels, so if people have access that’s a good way to stay informed and also to join a community of people who have similar questions and similar experiences.

Do you think there will be any difference in the treatment of British expatriates who have worked here and contributed to the Spanish system and people who have retired here and haven’t contributed to the Spanish system?

No, the basis will be residency. I don’t think there’s anything I’ve seen to suggest there would be any distinction drawn in that way.

We’re very aware we’ve got a very diverse group of nationals who live here in Spain. People have different priorities, depending on their personal circumstances, and that’s one of the things we’re talking about with the Spanish: explaining the character of the British population here and ensuring we’ve got answers to the questions Brits are asking us.

One of the concerns which has come up in the event of a no-deal Brexit is payments, notably of pensions, to British residents from British companies.

It is one of the concerns. We’re doing what we can to ensure that’s not going to be a problem. But that’s one of the risks with a no-deal Brexit. Some of the things we’ve grown to assume may not be available, but we’re very conscious of that.

We’re very conscious that pensions generally has been a big issue for people here, particularly the updating of pensions. We’ve made commitments in respect of a deal scenario. We’ve made further commitments in respect of a no-deal scenario: in a no-deal scenario we’ve got to move it up front for the first year or so, but beyond that we’d like to see some form of reciprocal arrangements with Spain, if we find ourselves in that situation.

Do you think the UK will request a delay to its departure from the EU? What about the likelihood of a second referendum?

On the question of delay, as the Prime Minister said in the House, the European Union’s not going to agree to a delay unless there’s a very good reason.

Everything we have done, not just negotiations with our European colleagues, but the legal framework we’ve put in place, is all based on the assumption we’re leaving on March 29. It takes quite an effort to change course, and I can’t really see the European Union agreeing to such a decision unless we were able to explain very clearly why it was that we wanted that, and what was the Government plan behind it, and to be able to show it had the support of Parliament.

Second vote: obviously there’s a lot of talk about it. The fact of the matter is it still needs the support of Parliament, and as of this moment in time neither main party supports it. 

Do you think it was fair that British citizens who had lived outside the UK for more than 15 years did not have the right to vote in the referendum, and would we be having a different conversation now if they had?

The Government has been committed to change the law so that people who have spent more than 15 years outside the UK can vote in future.

I can understand the frustration of people here whose lives and livelihoods feel threatened by all this, and who feel they didn’t have a stake in it.

I would hate to assume how those who’ve lived here for more than 15 years would have voted, and I think we occasionally make simplistic assumptions about people’s beliefs.

I think the most important thing is that people have a right to vote somewhere, and one of the things we’ve been working on most recently with the Spanish, and I think we are extremely close to finalising right now, is an agreement on voting rights. I do think it’s really important that people who’ve had that right to vote here in local elections continue to have it and can exercise that right to vote in the local elections in May.

How complicated has Brexit made your job as Ambassador?

I suppose I do spend rather more of my time talking about Brexit than I do about other subjects.

Given the course of over 45 years our EU membership has in some way or another found its way into almost every corner of our national life, it’s quite hard to have a discussion about anything which does not at some stage or another lead into a discussion about Brexit. So it’s certainly been a dominant theme in my last two years here.

One ongoing issue of particular concern to British expatriates in Almeria province over recent years has been the matter of illegal properties. What is the British Embassy doing to assist homeowners in a situation where their properties are not fully legal?

I’ve met some of the families involved, and it’s very sad to hear how they’ve suffered: those who’ve lost their homes, or fear the loss of their homes. The resilience of those families has been truly extraordinary.

We’ve been very happy to work with a number of associations which represent them and have been fighting for their rights, and we’ve tried to do our very modest bit to help. While we can’t really get involved in individual cases, what we have tried to do is to support the efforts of the groups to bring the issues to the attention of lawmakers.

We’ve made some progress over the last few years thanks to the extraordinary activism, energy and commitment of the groups concerned, and I hope we can make some more progress on this in the years to come. 

I understand that you move onto pastures new in the summer. Reviewing your time as Ambassador to Spain, other than Brexit, what have been the stand out aspects of the job?

The first thing to say is that it’s been the best job of my career. It’s been a truly extraordinary six years. It’s a tremendous privilege to serve queen and country, genuinely.

As a kid growing up in West London I never dreamt I’d be a diplomat, and I certainly never dreamt I’d be an ambassador!

Brexit has obviously been the dominant issue over the last couple of years, but the great thing about this job, and there are many great things about it – living in Spain being one of them of course, and meeting such an extraordinary range of people – is the sheer diversity. It’s a very rich and diverse job.

One of the things I will take with me is the extraordinary commitment of so many British residents here to charitable causes. Everywhere I go in this country I meet fearless, innovative and committed people who give up so much of their time and energy to help others. It’s chastening and inspiring in equal measure. 

Up-to-date advice for UK citizens living in Spain is available at gov.uk/living-in-spain.

The British Embassy also recommends following its Brits in Spain Facebook page, and signing up for alerts from the gov.uk page to ensure receipt of accurate information.

In addition, the Spanish Government has set up a Prepared for Brexit section on its Moncloa website.

 

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