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'Brits in Spain should learn the language'

George Mills · 2 Dec 2013, 09:20

Published: 01 Dec 2013 09:20 GMT+01:00
Updated: 02 Dec 2013 09:20 GMT+01:00

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You have been in the job for a month. What has impressed you most in that time?

I think what has most impressed are those British charities working around Spain. We talk a lot about the big society in the UK — about the idea of promoting volunteering and civic action — and you see it in action in places like Torrevieja [on the Costa Blanca] where you have [the UK charity for the elderly] Age Concern carrying out activities for a lot of often quite lonely people.

Clearly there are a lot of people out there in need because they are growing old, so they may be infirm. But there are also younger people, who like many Spanish people are clearing suffering from the results of the crisis — who came out here to work and have lost their jobs and are finding it hard to make ends meet.

You are very keen on getting Brits living in Spain to enroll on their local padrón (municipal register). Why should they do this?

The British government can’t address all the needs [of Brits living in Spain]. We have to focus on the most vulnerable and in many cases the best place [for people] to look for assistance is the Spanish local authority.

That’s why we are encouraging people to sign on to the padrón and register themselves and understand the sort of services they can secure from local authorities.

I think some people are put off registering because it involves dealing with officialdom but that’s the way you get access to services you’d be accustomed to back home or in any other EU member state.

You could also look at the flip side. What is it you would expect from people moving to the UK? I think you would expect them to look to local authorities for assistance, you would expect them to actually prepare themselves as well as they could for living in another country.

Also looking at what we would expect from people moving to the UK, I would encourage British people living in Spain to learn Spanish.

I’ve just been through four and half months of language training. It not only enables me — I hope — to talk to the Spanish politicians and businessmen I need to speak to, but I hope it also enables me to function better in Spanish society and to understand the society better.

Recently you spoke to groups representing Brits who have been evicted from their houses in Spain, or even had their houses demolished because they were built illegally. What did you say to those people?

I was aware of the problems beforehand and I think these are heart-wrenching stories because in many cases these are people who have come here, they have invested their life savings in their home in Spain.

And even if their houses have not been demolished, it’s the anxiety that they feel about the loss of security of their property when in many cases really they did all that could be reasonably expected of them in terms of getting proper legal advice about the property.

I know that some of the autonomous communities have tried to address this issue, including Andalusia, but what I heard is that at least in some cases the measures that local authorities have taken have not really resolved things.

The people who have invested their money and built their lives here — they love Spain and that’s why they came — they need that clarity (about the future state of their property).

But I don’t think it is for us as the British Government to tell the government of Andalusia or any other regional authority how they should address these issues. The people who know the law need to address it.

The Spanish government says the country's economy has turned a corner: that investors are interested in Spain again. Are you seeing this in your office?

We are seeing a renewed interest. The Spain desk at the UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) office is busier than ever in terms of the number of companies interested in exporting here.

There is a lot of interest out there and this is the sort of place where small British firms which have perhaps not exported before can make their first foray into an export market.

What would be the incentive for a UK firm to look at Spain as a possible export market?

If you are small or medium-sized enterprise that perhaps hasn't exported before, Spain is quite a familiar market. You may well have been here on holiday, you may even have a house here.

We are fellow members of the EU, therefore the rules and regulations in much of the economic and commercial sphere are effectively very similar, and it’s a sensible place to start.

We continue to think there are some real opportunities here in a number of key sectors — really opportunities both ways: for Spanish companies in the automobile supply chain in the UK, and for British companies to sell the extraordinary changes that have gone on in British food and drink in the last few years.

There are also a lot of opportunities both ways in an area like pharmaceuticals and biotechnology where we both have really cutting edge firms.

But Spain has a reputation for being a complicated, overly bureaucratic business environment.

Spain comes lower down the rankings for an easy place to do business than the UK. But what I also see are lots of British companies which are really flourishing here.

We are here working with people like the British Chamber of Commerce to try and identify those opportunities for British business, to try and enable them to set up here, or to grow here.

Recently you were in Catalonia and you met with Artus Mas and other Catalan politicians. What were they interested in hearing about?

With President Mas I was very keen to talk about the opportunities that exist both for Spanish firms in Catalonia to invest in the UK and for British firms to invest there.

On the Catalonia–Scotland issue, I made the same point with politicians in Catalonia as I will make with politicians in Madrid, or in Malaga or Bilbao. The two situations are different: different histories, and different constitutional positions.

And what message would you give to the people of Gibraltar?

I think we have, as the British Government, been very clear over the last few months. We think the measures that the Spanish Government has taken on the border are disproportionate and politically motivated.

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We think the new recommendations of the EU are very welcome.

I want to be absolutely clear that they are recommendations which are up to the government of Gibraltar to take forward under their constitutional powers. But I think both we and the government of Gibraltar say those recommendations are welcome.

We hope that Spanish Government will take those forward as well. We firmly believe the free movement of people and goods at the Spain–Gibraltar border is not just in the interests of the people and economy of Gibraltar, but also of the people and economy of La Linea and other parts of Andalusia most proximate to Gibraltar.

Lastly, what do you see as the main challenges of your role?

The challenge for me is to find 25 hours in the day!

There is more than enough for me to do with promoting Spanish investment in the UK, British exports here, developing what is an already strong security relationship between us, making sure we are really delivering our support to the most vulnerable Britons who live and travel here, and making the most of what is an extraordinary people-to-people relationship between our two countries.

In particular we need to make the most of the fact of how many young people in the UK are now learning Spanish and, of course, how many young Spaniards are now learning English.

You ally that to the around 14 million Brits who come here to Spain on holiday every year, the estimated 800,000 who live here and the 2,000 odd flights a week between our two countries, that’s an extraordinary people-to-people relationship.

And we can probably do more to embed that relationship in the political relationships between our two countries and the perceptions the two countries have of each other.

The British Embassy in Madrid recently launched a new social media drive to provide critical information to UK citizens living in Spain. Their new Facebook page is Brits Living in Spain and their new Twitter handle is @britslivespain.

George Mills (george.mills@thelocal.com)

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