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BREXIT

Britain and EU set out competing Brexit delay dates

Prime Minister Theresa May asked the European Union on Friday to delay Britain's departure until June 30 while Brussels suggested that it might be best to postpone the split for up to a year.

Britain and EU set out competing Brexit delay dates
European Council President Donald Tusk during a debate last month in Strasbourg. Photo: FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP
EU leaders also reacted sceptically, saying that there had to be a strong justification for any further delay. 
 
The competing visions of how to unwind Britain's 46-year EU membership will be hashed out again at a summit in Brussels on Wednesday.
 
Strong resistance is likely against May's plan, which would involve Britain planning for European elections on May 23 but then not actually holding them.
 
The current Brexit deadline of April 12 has already been pushed back once from March 29 because of the UK parliament's repeated failure to back the deal May signed with the other 27 EU leaders in December.
 
May's formal request to EU Council president Donald Tusk said Britain thinks the delay “should end on June 30 2019” — the same date she asked for and was refused at the last EU summit last month. 
 
“If the parties are able to ratify (the withdrawal agreement by) this date, the government proposes that the period should be terminated earlier,” May wrote in a letter released by Downing Street.
 
A senior EU official said that Tusk's own idea for a “flexible” 12-month extension “will be presented to member states today [Friday, ed.]”.
 
But a source in French President Emmanuel Macron's office said it was “premature” to consider the request without “a clear plan” from May about what she intended to do with the extra time.
 
France's Europe Affairs Minister Amelie de Montchalin said: “Another extension requires that the UK puts forward a plan with a clear and credible political backing.
 
“In the absence of such a plan we would have to acknowledge that the UK chose to leave the EU in a disorderly manner,” she said.
 
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said May still had “many questions” to clarify.
 
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte — seen as one of May's closer European allies — also said the letter “doesn't answer” important concerns.
 
'Political cover'
 
May said Britain would start preparing for European Parliament elections in case it is still a member of the bloc when they begin on May 23.   The idea is deeply unpopular with Britons who voted to quit the EU and chart their own future in a 2016 referendum whose arguments are still being waged to this day.
 
Political analysts in London said May probably knew that her new deadline will be rejected because EU leaders do not think she can get her deal through parliament any time soon. May is under intense pressure from the right wing of her Conservative Party to pull Britain out of the bloc as soon as possible — with or without a deal.
 
“I think that Theresa May is looking for political cover because she is asking for an extension she knows she can't get,” said King's College European politics professor Anand Menon. 
 
She wants Brussels to “force her to do something else so that at least she won't get accused of selling out.”
 
'Fight to save Brexit'
 
Britain and the other 27 EU nations must give unanimous backing to any deadline extension. Some EU leaders fear that Britain's participation in the European Parliament vote will help boost the standing of anti-EU parties due to their popularity among Brexit-backing Britons.
 
UK far-right leader Nigel Farage called on his supporters Friday to vote for his Brexit Party in the European election.
 
“The fightback to save Brexit has begun,” Farage tweeted.
 
Breakthrough unlikely
 
May's team is currently negotiating with leaders from the main opposition Labour Party in a bid to find a compromise that can pass parliament in the coming days. But the talks do not appear to be going well.
 
“We are disappointed that the government has not offered real change or compromise,” a Labour Party spokesperson told reporters. “We urge the prime minister to come forward with genuine changes to her deal in an effort to find an alternative that can win support in parliament and bring the country together.”
 
May's letter said the talks' failure would likely see the two parties jointly produce several options that would be put up for a series of parliamentary votes.
 
Labour is pushing May to accept a much closer post-Brexit alliance with the bloc that includes its participation in a customs union. May had previously dismissed the idea because it bars Britain from striking its own trade deals with global giants such as China and the United States.
 
By AFP's Dmitry Zaks
 

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BREXIT

UK driving licences in Spain: When no news is bad news

The UK Ambassador to Spain has given an update on the driving licence debacle, with nothing new to genuinely give hope to the thousands of in-limbo drivers whose increasing frustration has led one group to try and take matters into their own hands.

UK driving licences in Spain: When no news is bad news

It’s been almost five months since UK driving licence holders residing in Spain were told they could no longer drive on Spanish roads. 

Since that fateful May 1st, an unnamed number of the approximately 400,000 UK nationals who are residents in Spain, as well as hundreds if not thousands of Spaniards and foreign nationals who passed their driving test in the UK, have not been able to use their vehicles in Spain or even rent one. 

What adds insult to injury is that British tourists visiting Spain can rent a car without any issue. The fact that Spanish licence holders living in the UK can also continue to exchange their permits in the UK 21 months after Brexit came into force is equally hard to swallow.

READ MORE: ‘An avoidable nightmare’ – How UK licence holders in Spain are affected by driving debacle

The latest update from UK Ambassador to Spain Hugh Elliott on September 27th has done little to quell the anger and sense of helplessness felt by those caught in this bureaucratic rabbit hole.

“I wanted to talk to you personally about the driving licences negotiations, which I know are continuing to have a serious impact on many of you,” Elliott began by saying.

“As the government’s representative in Spain, I hear and understand your frustrations. I too am frustrated by the pace.

“We previously thought, we genuinely thought, that we’d have concluded negotiations by the summer. 

“Many of you have quite rightly mentioned that I expressed the hope to you that we’d have you back on the road by the end of July.

“Now the truth is it has taken much longer, as there have been unforeseen issues that we have been working very hard to resolve. 

“And I’m as disappointed as you are by the length of time that this is actually taking. 

“But, please, be assured that we are resolving those issues, one by one. There are only a couple of issues left, but they are complex.”

It has previously been suggested by the UK Embassy that Spain has asked for data provision to form part of the exchange agreement, and that British authorities were reluctant to share said information on British drivers’ records, including possible infractions. 

Whether this is still one of the causes of the holdups is unknown, given how opaque the Embassy is being in this regard. 

“We’re working on this every day, it remains a priority,” the UK Ambassador continued.

“There is a lot going on behind the scenes, even if it doesn’t feel like it to you. 

“I know too that you want a timescale and you want an update after every meeting.

“But I’m afraid I just can’t give you those things in this negotiation.” 

The ambassador’s words are unlikely to appease those who are still unable to drive. 

A few weeks ago, a Facebook group called “Invasion of the British embassy in Madrid for the DL exchange issue” was set up, which so far has more than 400 members. 

The group’s administrator, Pascal Siegmund, is looking to set up a meeting with the British Embassy and Spanish authorities to shed light on the impact that not being allowed to drive is having on the life of thousands of UK licence holders in Spain. 

Many of those affected are sharing their stories online, explaining how, due to administrative errors on the part of Spain’s DGT traffic authority, they were unable to process their licence exchange before the deadline. 

This contrasts with the little sympathy shown by UK licence holders who were able to exchange and other commentators, who accuse those in limbo of not having bothered to complete the process, arguing that it’s essentially their own fault.

READ ALSO: Not all Brits in Spain who didn’t exchange UK driving licences are at fault 

“Many of you also continue to ask why you can’t drive while the talks are continuing,” Elliott remarked.

“It is not in the gift of the UK government to reinstate the measures which previously allowed you to continue to drive whilst the negotiations were ongoing earlier in the year. 

“As we said previously, we did request the reinstatement of those measures several times, but this wasn’t granted.”

It’s worth noting that since the news broke on May 1st that UK licence holders residing in Spain for more than six months could no longer drive, no Spanish news outlet has covered the story again. 

Pressure from citizen groups such as the one recently set up and increased awareness about the issue in English-language news sites such as The Local Spain is perhaps the best chance in-limbo drivers have of their voices being heard and the driving licence debacle being finally fixed. 

“I’d say we’re genuinely still making progress,” UK Ambassador Elliott concluded, practically the same message as in previous updates.

“I get how frustrating it is to hear that, but we are making progress. We’re in discussions almost daily about outstanding issues. 

“And I remain very optimistic that we will reach an agreement and hope it will be soon. 

“But as I say, I can’t give you a definitive timetable. 

“And so, the advice that we have been giving all along, which is that you should consider taking the Spanish test if you do need to drive urgently, remains valid. Though we appreciate that’s hard.”

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