OPINION: What does 2021 hold for those in Spain who fought against Brexit?

Now that a Brexit trade deal has finally been agreed and as we reach the end of the Withdrawal Agreement, Sue Wilson explores what comes next.

OPINION: What does 2021 hold for those in Spain who fought against Brexit?
Photo: Bremain in Spain montage

After months of bluster, grandstanding and tedium, the UK and EU have finally agreed a Brexit trade deal.

Although it’s far from ideal, and even further from the best deal possible – the one we already had – it’s a great relief all round not be crashing over the proverbial cliff edge. It seems a bad deal really is better than no deal after all.

I could complain about what we’ve lost, but it won’t change the situation we are facing. Instead, my New Year’s resolution is to move past old arguments and concentrate on constructive battles. I don’t mean that I’ll forget or forgive what has been stolen from us, and I’m certainly not ready to “suck it up”. However, our Brexit journey isn’t over with the new deal, as negotiations will likely continue for years to come.

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When Michel Barnier and Ursula von der Leyen announced that a deal had been struck, their overall tone was one of regret. By contrast, and entirely as predicted, Boris Johnson’s approach was celebratory and triumphal.

Never one to focus on the details, it’s quite possible our prime minister doesn’t understand all the intricacies of the deal he just signed. This was apparent in his response to press questions about friction-free trade. He claimed that the tariff-free deal had no non-tariff barriers, when in fact there are many barriers to trade. With the UK leaving the single market and customs union, those barriers will include a multitude of customs and regulatory checks at borders.

By contrast, the EU is keen on details and has added legal clauses to protect the integrity of the single market, and the EU itself. Based on its recent experiences, the EU knows that Johnson’s good faith cannot be taken at face value.  Legal protection is evident in the deal with regard to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Should the UK attempt to diverge on human rights, the agreement will be “terminated on date of leaving ECHR”. Not for the first time, I’m grateful that our rights are protected by international statute, rather than UK law.

So, where does the current state of play leave campaign groups, such as Bremain in Spain? When the group was created on June 24th, 2016, our main aim was to stop Brexit. Obviously, we failed, but I don’t regret a single moment of that fight. The anti-Brexit campaign came close to securing a second referendum, and we know that we tried everything in our power.

It was sometimes a bitter struggle, but I’ll always remember the moments when we united with passion and hope. The feelings of camaraderie are still strong, as are the collective feelings of sadness, anger and disbelief.

With varying degrees of success, I have tried to understand the reasoning behind Leave voters’ decisions, but I’ve rarely felt that Remainers have been extended the same courtesy. The most vocal commentators are usually the extremists on both sides, but they don’t express the majority view.

I’m sure that Remainers and Leavers annoy and misunderstand each other in equal measure. However, a common and extremely grating theme is Leavers telling Remainers to “get over it”. That feels as welcome and lacking in empathy as saying the same thing to grieving relatives at a funeral. It’s true, we did lose, but with Brexit, there are no winners. We all lost, even if we don’t all realise it yet.

I don’t intend to dwell on the past, but – just as I did five years ago – I believe as strongly today that the UK’s rightful place is at the heart of Europe.

The task now facing us is twofold. Firstly, we must work closely with the authorities here in Spain – most notably the British Embassy – to inform and assist those struggling to come to terms with our new future. We must also ensure that promises are kept, that our rights secured by the Withdrawal Agreement are protected, and that vulnerable people don’t fall through the gaps.

Secondly, the fight for the UK’s future must continue. Of course, I would like the UK to re-join the EU, but that’s a long way off and unlikely to happen under a Conservative government.

Until the prospect of EU membership looks more likely, there are other pressing battles to fight. Leaving Covid aside, the problems facing the British public are many and worrying. The Conservative government is currently trying to remove power from parliament and the courts and wants to reduce levels of scrutiny.

This is hardly the “taking back control” that Brexit voters were mis-sold. The toxic immigration debate – and new Home Office policies supporting it – are not only morally questionable but are responsible for removing our freedom of movement. Then there is the ongoing battle of holding the government to their repeated promises to restore our democratic voting rights.

A sensible stepping-stone to regaining EU membership could include forging closer ties with our neighbours. For example, a re-think is needed on the dreadful decision to leave the Erasmus programme, that has deprived young people of European study opportunities. There is also considerable room for improvement as far as data-sharing and security are concerned. Further down the road, taking the UK back into the single market and customs union would surely be a worthwhile and logical step towards greater cooperation and prosperity.

As 2020 draws to a close, taking the transition period with it, New Year’s Eve will hold more significance than usual. I’ve never had such a strong feeling of “good riddance to the old year”, and that a new year – and a new start – will be welcome.

As we raise a toast at midnight, one thing is for sure: our auld acquaintance with the EU will never be forgot!  Whether or not you’re ready to put the past behind you and move forwards, I wish you all a Happy New Year. If you want to continue the fight for tolerance, transparency and internationalism, you know where to find us!

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain


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Anger grows as no solution found yet for in limbo UK drivers in Spain 

British drivers living in Spain are becoming increasingly disgruntled at the lack of solutions two weeks after they were told their UK licences were no longer valid, with the latest update from the UK Embassy suggesting it could still take "weeks" to reach a deal. 

Anger grows as no solution found yet for in limbo UK drivers in Spain 

There is growing discontent among UK licence holders residing in Spain who are currently in limbo, unable to drive in Spain until they either get a Spanish driving licence or a deal is finally reached between Spanish and UK authorities for the mutual exchange of licences post-Brexit.

Since May 1st 2022, drivers who’ve been residents in Spain for more than six months and who weren’t able to exchange their UK licences for Spanish ones cannot drive in Spain.

There are no official stats on how many Britons of the 407,000 UK nationals who are residents in Spain in 2022 are affected; according to the UK Embassy the “majority exchanged” as advised.

But judging by the amount of negative comments the last two updates from the British Embassy in Madrid have received, hundreds if not thousands are stuck without being able to drive in Spain.  

May 12th’s video message by Ambassador Hugh Elliott left many unhappy with the fact that the forecast for a possible licence exchange agreement will be in the “coming weeks”, when two weeks earlier Elliott had spoken of “rapidly accelerating talks”. 

Dozens of angry responses spoke of the “shocking” and “absolutely ridiculous” holdup in negotiations that have been ongoing for more than at least a year and a half, and which the UK Embassy has put down to the fact that Spain is asking the British government to give them access to DVLA driver data such as road offences, something “not requested by other EU Member States”.

Numerous Britons have explained the setbacks not being able to drive in Spain are causing them, from losing their independence to struggling to go to work, the hospital or the supermarket, especially those in rural areas with little public transport.  

“I know personally from all the messages you’ve sent in, just how incredibly disruptive all of this is for many of you,” Elliott said in response. 

“If you are struggling to get around you may find additional advice or support from your local town hall, or charities or community groups in your area and the Support in Spain website is another very useful source of organisations that can provide general support to residents.

“And if your inability to drive is putting you in a very vulnerable situation, you can always contact your nearest consulate for advice.”

There continue to be disparaging opinions in the British community in Spain over whether any pity should be felt for UK licence holders stuck without driving, as many argue they had enough time to register intent to exchange their licences, whilst others clarify that their particular set of circumstances, such as arriving after the December 2020 ‘intent to exchange’ deadline, made this impossible. 

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

So is there any light at the end of the tunnel for drivers whose UK licences aren’t valid anymore in Spain or soon won’t be?

“The agreement we’re working towards now will enable UK licence holders, whenever they arrived in Spain or arrive in the future, to exchange their UK licence for a Spanish one without needing to take a practical or a theory test,” Elliott said on Thursday May 12th of the deal they are “fully committed” to achieve.

READ ALSO: How much does it cost to get a Spanish driving licence?

And yet it’s hard for anyone to rest their hopes on this necessarily happening – sooner or later or ever – in part because the embassy advice for those with UK licences for whom it’s imperative to continue driving in Spain is that they should take steps to get their Spanish licence now, while acknowledging that in some places there are “long delays for lessons” and getting your Spanish licence “doesn’t happen overnight”.

READ ALSO: What now for UK licence holders in Spain?