Spain is the most popular destination for Britons living abroad. More than 330,000 are officially residents in the country and thousands more live there on a permanent basis despite being unregistered. As part of the contingency plan for a no-deal Brexit, the Spanish government has approved a package of measures to protect the rights of Britons living in Spain. But Madrid is still waiting for a similar response from London towards the 165,000 Spaniards in the Island.
On October 31, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union unless a last-minute agreement changes the course of events. In the time remaining, the EU and its Member States rush to refine contingency plans to counteract the shock. On March 1, the Spanish Executive passed the Royal Decree-Law 5/2019 containing a list of legislative measures to implement in a no-deal scenario. Citizens’ rights are one of the decree’s pillar, including the recognition of university degrees, driving licenses, access to healthcare, and work permits among other benefits.
Madrid expects the same treatment for Spanish citizens living in the United Kingdom and to ensure it, some of the contingency measures have a “temporary nature.” If there is no reciprocity from London within two months after the decree’s entry into force, the measures will be suspended. With this “mechanism of reciprocity” Spain wants to put pressure on the Island, where there is a general post-Brexit mechanism designed for all EU citizens but not as detailed as the Spanish royal decree.
On September 19, the Spanish acting Minister of Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell met with the British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Stephen Barclay to highlight the “good state of bilateral relations” between the countries. Both ministers underlined the intention to continue working together to “minimize possible negative impacts of Brexit on citizens and economic operators.”
“I want to emphasize that my Government greatly values the contribution that thousands of Spanish citizens make to our country. We want them to stay in the UK,” said Barclay. But Britons seem more worried about the British government’s performance than Spaniards. Dozens of British residents in Spain marched through the streets of Málaga on September 22 protesting for the uncertainty of their citizen status as the Brexit date approaches.
Under slogans like “No Brexit!” or “The UK has forgotten us” while carrying European flags, protestants showed concern regarding their future rights as non-EU citizens. An important part of the British population living in Spain is retired and aged over 65, so one of their main concerns has to do with the access to healthcare –British residents are the foreigners who make the greatest use of the Spanish state-funded universal healthcare system.
“We are absolutely committed to protecting healthcare. We are in discussions with the Spanish government on that,” said Barclay in a meeting with British Ambassador to Spain Hugh Elliott. “Through the Royal Decree, the Spanish Government has given good support to citizens here, compared to the other Member States,” he admitted.
According to Borrell, it is still possible to reach an agreement until the date scheduled for the withdrawal comes. But despite the fine words, Spain has intensified its efforts to be prepared to an undesirable no-deal outcome. On September 11, the acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced the involvement of 875 public servants dedicated to deal with the upcoming extra work in areas like border control or trade.
“The government has worked to cover any possible scenario,” insisted Sanchez to Congress on September 11. Although the socialist Prime Minister recognized that the contingency measures adopted “can only mitigate the consequences [of a no-deal Brexit] but will not eliminate them.” Regarding the Spanish citizens in the United Kingdom, Sánchez trusts the protection of their rights in case of a “hard divorce” but warns that the government will be “vigilant” so the mutual recognition is applied effectively.