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Spain’s King and Queen start state visit to UK amid Brexit tensions

Spanish King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia begin a state visit to Britain on Wednesday, as the two countries attempt to strengthen ties despite tensions over Britain's plans to leave the European Union and the sovereignty of Gibraltar.

Spain's King and Queen start state visit to UK amid Brexit tensions
The Mall lined with Spanish and British flags. Photo: AFP

The visit was delayed twice, once while Spanish politicians formed a new government and again last month because Britain held a snap general election.    

The Spanish royals will be greeted on Wednesday by Queen Elizabeth II — a distant cousin of Felipe — with a ceremony in central London.    

Ana Romero, author and former royal correspondent for Spain's El Mundo newspaper, said the visit is the “jewel of the crown” of the king's calendar.    

“The pomp has its importance because it is the moment which the monarchy has to demonstrate its diplomatic usefulness,” she told AFP. 

Gibraltar on the menu?

Felipe is due to address the British parliament, where he could follow in his father's footsteps and talk about Gibraltar — although the political landscape has somewhat changed since 1986.

At the time, King Juan Carlos said the sovereignty of the British territory was “the only thing that separates us”.  

The EU has already promised Spain a veto over the extension to Gibraltar of any future trade deal between Britain and the bloc, a topic which could come up during the king's lunch on Thursday with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

READ MORE: King Felipe urges end of 'colonial anachronism' of Gib

With a population of just over 32,000, Gibraltar has been a British overseas territory since 1713 but Spain has long laid claim to the rocky outcrop.

The fate of an estimated 300,000 British citizens living in Spain — the majority of them retirees — may also be up for discussion along with that of around 116,000 Spaniards living in Britain.

“Most importantly, we must give priority to our citizens, be it the British here, or the Spaniards there,” Britain's ambassador to Spain, Simon Manley, told Spanish public radio RNE.

READ ALSO: We want the British to stay here, insists British ambassador to Madrid

“We are proud of the contribution from the Spanish, be it nurses, engineers, and we want them to stay,” he said.  

Romero suggested that while such topics will likely come up during the visit, the king also has other priorities.

“It would be logical that he will allude to the sovereignty dispute over Gibraltar, as his father did, as well as to Brexit and jihadism, since in the most recent attacks in London a Spaniard died as he tried to defend a woman,” she said, referring to an attack on London Bridge on June 3rd and the death of skateboarding hero Ignacio Echeverria..

Business will also be on the agenda and top Spanish business leaders will accompany the royals, including from Ferrovial, a Heathrow airport shareholder, Santander bank and telecoms firm Telefonica.

BRITS IN EUROPE

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.

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