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Brexit and Spain roundup: The impact on Spaniards, embassy strike and Gibraltar’s rubbish

This week we cover why northern Spain is particularly affected by Brexit, how strikes at Spain's embassy and consulates in the UK are having a negative impact on visa applications and why Brexit is proving to be a big stinky problem for Gibraltar.

Brexit and Spain roundup: The impact on Spaniards, embassy strike and Gibraltar's rubbish
The impact of Brexit on Spain - either directly on its economy or indirectly through events in Gibraltar or the UK - is undeniable. Photos: Jorge Guerrero/AFP, Andrés García/Pexels

Brexit costs each Spaniard €292 a year

Even though the economic impact of Brexit is mainly being felt in the United Kingdom (4 percent GDP loss in the long term according to recent estimates), most Spanish regions are also feeling the consequences of the UK’s exit from the EU. 

One would think that the most affected part of Spain would be the Valencia region, home to 85,000 resident Brits and Benidorm, Alicante and other coastal spots which have long been the favourite holiday destinations of UK tourists. 

The Valencian Institute of Economic Research (Ivie) has calculated that the drop in real GDP in the eastern region of five million people has been 0.07 percent, representing an average loss of €253 a year for each Valencian.

Interestingly however, the study focused primarily on the commercial impact of the drop in trade between Spain and the UK, and in the northern industrial regions of Navarre and the Basque Country inhabitants are losing a lot more in relative terms, €621 and €615 a year per capita respectively.

According to Ivie, Spain’s overall annual GDP loss as a result of Brexit is 0.08 percent, around €13.6 billion (€292 per capita), and in general the closer the regions are to the UK (those in northern Spain), the larger the impact, given that trade tends to increase based on proximity.

Brussels coughs up to help Spain confront impact of Brexit 

Continuing on from the previous section, the European Commission (EC) gave the green light on March 15th for Spain to receive €84.5 million as part of a fund to support the economic sectors and regions that are suffering the most from the effects of Brexit.

That’s roughly a tenth of the €812 million that 12 Member States will receive this month and to which will be added an additional €1.26 billion already approved for April 2023, of which Spain will be allocated another €130 million. 

UK licence validity ends

Last February, Spanish authorities for the fourth time extended the period of validity of UK driving licences in Spain until April 30th.

As this latest deadline nears, negotiations over the mutual exchange of licences continue with no deadline in sight after more than a year of talks. 

There hasn’t been any update from the UK embassy in Madrid since they confirmed the extension on February 23rd 2022.

UK licence holders in Spain can expect either an answer to whether they will have to sit their practical driving exams in Spanish soon or they will get another extension to the validity of their UK licences, the latter the more likely outcome based on previous events. 

No freedom of movement equals no travel for unvaccinated Brits

The Spanish government has again extended temporary restrictions for non-essential travel from most third countries for another month, until April 30th 2022, the umpteenth extension over the course of the pandemic. 

What this means is that most unvaccinated non-EU/Schengen adult travellers – including British tourists who are neither vaccinated nor recently recovered – can still not visit Spain for tourism. 

It’s an indirect consequence of Brexit as unvaccinated EU tourists can visit Spain given their freedom of movement rights, something Britons who don’t reside in the EU no longer enjoy.

Spain was willing to bend its Covid travel rules to make an exception for unvaccinated British tourists for some months in 2021, but there is no sign as yet that they’ll be willing to do so again. 

Brexit has been a huge pile of rubbish for Gibraltar

In early March, as many as 6,000 tonnes of rubbish were piled up in The Rock, an unforeseen consequence of Brexit for most in Spain and the UK.

Until recently, Gibraltar had an agreement with nearby Spanish waste disposal companies to take away and process the small British Overseas Territory’s garbage under the EU framework.

But in February 2022 this straightforward deal broke down, as negotiations over Gibraltar’s relationship with Spain post-Brexit continued. 

The garbage piled up over the following weeks, environmentalists warned of the possible environmental catastrophe for the whole bay area and Gibraltarian authorities planned to start storing all the waste in World War II tunnels. 

The Cádiz-based organisation previously responsible for collecting Gibraltar’s rubbish has since agreed to transport the 6,000 tonnes of rubbish to a landfill in Los Barrios, but any breakdown in the ongoing talks regarding the transport of goods and people at The Rock could cause another holdup. 

Spanish Embassy in UK strike continues

Staff at Spain’s Embassy and Consulates in London, Manchester and Edinburgh have been on strike since March 14th over calls for better salaries and work conditions.

Although the strike has left hundreds if not thousands of Spaniards without the possibility of renewing their Spanish passports in the UK, it is also affecting the issuance of residency visas for Britons who want to move to Spain (now a requirement for them post-Brexit) given that there’s only a minimum provision of services currently.

Spanish consular staff have for months denounced the precarious situation in which they find themselves, their understaffed offices and salary freezes over the past thirteen years aggravated by the impact of Brexit on the British economy.

“In the last year alone, 21 workers have left their jobs permanently,” embassy staff wrote on their petition with the aim of getting Spain’s Foreign Affairs Ministry to act. 

“Until these posts are filled (a process that takes several months), the work falls on the rest of the workers, who cannot cope”.

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INTERVIEW: The lawyers calling for a better visa for British homeowners in Spain

A group of lawyers is campaigning for a new visa which would allow non-resident British second-homeowners in Spain to freely enjoy their properties post-Brexit without having to show the high level of savings currently required.

INTERVIEW: The lawyers calling for a better visa for British homeowners in Spain

As most Britons are now fully aware of, since Brexit came into force, UK nationals who aren’t EU residents can only spend 90 days out of 180 days in Spain and the Schengen Area.

This has proven very problematic for Britons who own a second home in Spain who, when purchasing their Spanish properties, were under the impression they would always be able to split their time freely and flexibly between the UK and Spain without having to become Spanish residents (as long as they respected Spain’s residency and fiscal rules).

It used to be an ideal situation for these ‘part-year dwellers’, the best of both worlds some may argue, but the UK’s exit from the EU has complicated things enormously for them. 

Estimates based on Spanish government data suggest that in 2020 the number of Britons who owned property in Spain was anywhere between 800,000 and 1 million.

There are now 407,000 UK nationals who are residents in Spain in 2022, and although there is no exact data on the number of Britons who own or rent property long-term in Spain without being residents, it could easily be in the hundreds of thousands. 

READ ALSO: Is it true Britons are leaving Spain ‘in droves’ after Brexit as UK tabloids claims?

They are undoubtedly of great economic importance to some parts of Spain, as evidenced by the Valencian government’s announcement last November that they would push the national Tourism Ministry to make it easier for non-resident British nationals to spend more than 90 out of 180 days in the region without having to apply for a visa.

There hasn’t been a public update on this front since, but Spanish law firm Costaluz Lawyers has recently put the issue back on the table, proposing a new type of visa for British second-home owners. 

The Local Spain spoke to María Luisa Castro, the lawyer who’s been leading the campaign, to learn more about it.

“We propose a new visa that caters to British property buyers who want to live in Spain but don’t have the necessary funds for the current visa options,” Castro explained. 

“We’d like to make it very simple with just two main requirements. Firstly, applicants would have to show that they have owned a property in Spain for at least three years and secondly that they have proof of an income of at least €1,130 a month, roughly half the funds required for the non-lucrative visa”.

Castro also stressed that as part of this potential visa, applicants should have to fulfil conditions for health insurance and have a clean criminal record, a standard practice for most Spanish residence visas.

“But the main condition would be property ownership and sufficient funds,” Castro emphasized.

READ ALSO: What are the pros and cons of Spain’s non-lucrative visa?

The campaign calls on British second homeowners to sign a petition to get the Spanish government to listen to the proposal and meet demands.

“We need 500,000 signatures in order for the issue to be discussed by the Spanish government, but we are also gathering signatures to give these people a voice and create awareness. We hope to be able to lobby both the UK and the Spanish governments to start bilateral negotiations” she explained.

Castro believes that there is definitely a need for this type of visa, especially for Britons, who now have to deal with stricter rules and have fewer options since they became non-EU nationals after Brexit.

“There are thousands of British property owners in Spain who bought their properties many years ago as second homes, but also as a place for future retirement or for health reasons,” she said.  

Crucially, even though the petition states non-EU citizens, Castro believes that it should really only be made available to Britons.

“It is not simply the fact that they are homeowners that means they should be considered for a new type of visa, but the fact that they had full-time ownership rights in the past, which makes the current restriction a loss of acquired rights”.  

In other words, Castro argues that those from other non-EU countries bought properties in Spain knowing that they could only stay 90 days out of every 180, but those from the UK bought them on the basis that they would have greater flexibility in this regard.  

“We hope that a visa which requires proof of finances, plus the evidence of being a homeowner with a retirement plan in Spain will be sufficient,” she said.

Another lawyer, Fernando del Canto, from Del Canto Chambers law firm, has previously argued that ownership plus health and retirement associated rights are being infringed upon by the Schengen limitations as per the European Human Rights Convention (EHRC). “A bilateral or reciprocal agreement between the UK and Spain on this particular matter is needed,” he said. 

The EHRC states that “every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of their possessions. No one shall be deprived of their possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law”.

Judging by the above, it is open to interpretation as to whether it means that Britons’ rights are being infringed upon or not.

Nonetheless, Castro believes that the 90-day rule has had a huge negative impact on British non-resident homeowners and on Spain itself.

“We are frequently contacted by clients desperate to keep staying here for longer periods, as part of an acquired lifestyle and for health reasons. Now they need to explore the possibilities of the non-lucrative visa, which on many occasions, they cannot afford”. 

She believes there is a risk that Britons could stop buying in Spain, “particularly those who bought a property for retirement”, and that many of her British clients have already felt forced to sell their Spanish properties because of Brexit limitations.

READ ALSO: What worries British second home owners in Spain most about Brexit

Britons have historically accounted for the largest group of foreign property buyers in Spain. In 2018, they represented 24.3 percent of the market share. The figure dropped to 20 percent in 2019 and by late 2021 Germans had surpassed Britons as the main foreign buyers in Spain.

This however may have had more to do with Spain’s coronavirus restrictions for non-EU travellers and the UK’s own complex traffic-light system than only as a consequence of Brexit, as in early 2022 UK nationals were back at the top of the property podium again.

So despite the new setbacks, it appears that Spain is still an attractive location for budding British second-home owners, but perhaps more so now for those who can afford the golden visa or non-lucrative visa. 

But how likely is it that such legislation will be approved?

READ ALSO: Can Spain legally offer more than 90 days to Britons?

Castro firmly believes that the Spanish government will listen to foreign homeowners’ demands. “If we get a good number of signatures and the UK government is also lobbied, it will create awareness. Retired people are an increasing source of economic strength for our country.

“Currently, only those buying properties over €500,000 can apply for residency based on property purchase (through the golden visa). Other EU countries have lower financial thresholds”, she explained.

READ ALSO: What foreigners should be aware of before applying for Spain’s golden visa

Castro encourages second homeowners to do whatever they can to help this visa proposal become a reality, as well as signing the petition.

She advises them to make their voices heard through blog posts, newspaper articles and writing to local politicians.