OPINION: ‘I trust the Spanish government to protect rights of Britons in Spain’

The Spanish government's attitude towards British residents in the country is in stark contrast to that of the UK government towards EU residents, writes a grateful Sue Wilson from Bremain in Spain.

OPINION: 'I trust the Spanish government to protect rights of Britons in Spain'
Image: Tamara Essex

The recent sentiments expressed by Spanish Secretary of State, Hana Jalloul (Ministerio de Inclusión, Seguridad Social y Migraciones), were welcomed by British citizens across Spain. In fact, they brought a tear to many an eye and a lump to the throat.

In a recorded video message, British Ambassador to Spain, Hugh Elliott – along with Hana Jalloul -clarified forthcoming changes to the residency document for UK nationals and offered messages of support to the British community in Spain.

The quality and frequency of the information provided by the British Embassy over recent weeks has reassured many resident Brits. The clear steps to the new process, and the necessary requirements, have been frequently communicated to relevant stakeholders. However, it was reassuring to hear directly from the Secretary of State. The simple, straightforward approach by Spanish politicians has been welcome, but Jalloul’s personal message really hit home. 

As a Brit living in Spain, I’m constantly aware of similarities and differences between here and the UK. Whether it’s the prevailing attitude towards Brexit or coronavirus, a crisis can bring out the best or worst in people – and their governments.

READ ALSO: Spanish authorities reassure Brits in Spain

The attitudes of the Spanish authorities and public towards the European Union contrasts with the UK and its constant rhetoric surrounding migrant residents. While Spain has shown compassion for its British residents, and people wishing to join them, the UK’s treatment of Spanish and other European citizens has, at times, been hostile and shameful.

Apart from the British government’s lack of empathy for EU citizens who already live there, the process of securing residency rights is complex and costly. There’s also a considerable risk that EU citizens who were legally resident before Brexit may have their applications rejected or their status downgraded.

Currently, around a third of those applying for “settled status” are being granted the lesser “pre-settled status”, meaning they will need to reapply later and go through another frustrating and nerve-wracking application process.

Another bone of contention for Europeans living in the UK is the British government’s unwillingness to provide EU citizens with proof of legal residency status. Without the equivalent of our new identity card for foreigners (TIE), it may prove difficult to assure employers or landlords they are legally resident. A simple ID card, identifying EU citizens’ rights of residence and confirming their protection under the Withdrawal Agreement, seems an easy solution. It’s difficult, therefore, to understand the British government’s reluctance to supply one.

READ ALSO: 'It's time for under-the-radar Brits to become official in Spain

Brits living in Europe have been sympathetic to the issues faced by EU citizens at the hands of the Home Office. When Hana Jalloul’s message reached the Spanish media, none of us could imagine the UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, delivering a similar message to EU citizens in the UK.  That sympathy also comes with an eye on our own situation. Apart from our concern for EU citizens, there’s the fear that the Spanish authorities might change their view towards us if their own citizens are treated poorly by the UK.

Personally, I don’t see that happening – I trust the Spanish government to protect my rights, and to do so with good grace. Spain has long been considered one of the most pro-European countries in the EU. Our citizens’ rights, negotiated as part of the Brexit Withdrawal – a legally binding international treaty – are safe in Spain’s hands, regardless of who else might want to wriggle out of their legal commitments.

Spain, thankfully, chose to make things simple and straightforward for British residents. Had they made it more complicated, or riskier, I would have grumbled, but I would have got on with it. After all, I’m not going anywhere.

I’m grateful for the ease of our transition, and the welcome I’ve received throughout my 13 years in Spain. So, thank you Hana, for your kind words, your warm heart, and for echoing the way we feel about your wonderful country. It is, and always will be, home.

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain

Member comments

  1. I wholeheatedly agree with you.The secretary of state´s comments seemed entirely genuine and cariñosos.

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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.