Spanish border guards step up checks on Britons in surprise Gibraltar move

Spanish border guards have stepped up border checks on non-EU citizens (including many Britons) entering Spain from Gibraltar, demanding that they prove where they are going and staying in the country.

Spanish border guards step up checks on Britons in surprise Gibraltar move
Spaniards cross the border between Spain and Gibraltar to go to work. Photo: Cristina Quicler/AFP

Spanish border guards have reportedly started implementing stricter border checks on non-EU citizens leaving The Rock for Spain, in a surprise escalation that has surprised everyone including Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.

Tweeting this week, Picardo said that the Gibraltarian government has received reports of a change in approach to Non-Gibraltarian, Third Country Nationals, crossing the frontier into Spain,” and added that he “will be taking up these issues with the UK and Spanish authorities.”

It is believed that Spanish authorities are now demanding non-EU nationals travelling on foot, including British passport holders, are able to demonstrate both travel and accommodation plans with bookings before allowing them to enter into Spain.

Similar checks are not being made on travellers crossing the border by car, however, The Local understands.

Yet, as of Monday reports have emerged that many British citizens, even Gibraltarian blue card residence permit holders, are being denied entry in Spain, but not non-EU nationals – including Britons – who already have official Spanish residency, nor Gibraltarians with red residence cards.

The Spanish Policía Nacional, however, claims it is maintaining the same border checks it always has and that nothing will change until a full Brexit agreement is finally made. 

Negotiations on a deal outlining Gibraltar’s future relationship with the EU are ongoing, and it remains to be seen if Gibraltar – a British overseas territory that voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU by 96 percent – will have some kind of special arrangement to maintain frictionless access to the Schengen area.

READ MORE: What are the reasons for being denied entry into Spain?

A Gibraltar-based source familiar with the negotiations explained to The Local that “we have had temporary bridging measures agreed with Spain about how the frontier operates” until an agreement is made, but that “it seems these bridging measures were not respected” this week. 

On the ground many Llanitos (as Gibraltarians are known) believe the stricter border checks coincided with replacement border guards brought in to cover Easter holiday breaks who were unfamiliar with the bridging measures, or that they could be related to the recent arrival of two nuclear submarines (one British, one American) that docked in Gibraltar.

Maintaining a fluid border arrangement is essential for both Spaniards and Gibraltarians as over 10,000 Spaniards cross the border to work in Gibraltar every day, and many Brits based in Gibraltar have family and property in Spain. 

But domestic politics over the border could also play a role in the future relationship.

If, as seems probable, the Spanish right wins the next general election, many in Gibraltar fear that any deal that is eventually made will be rendered useless and immediately renegotiated, at best, or, at worst, torn up.

The Spanish right has long used blood and soil nationalist rhetoric against Gibraltar to whip-up political support in the Campo de Gibraltar area of Cádiz province, one of the poorest parts of Spain.

Although it is hoped a deal based on the framework agreement signed by both Britain and Spain on December 31st 2020 will be made at some point in the first half of 2022, it seems Picardo and his government are covering all their bases and preparing for the potentiality of a no-deal scenario. 

Some weeks ago, Gibraltar’s government began advising citizens on how to prepare for and mitigate the consequences of a potential failed negotiation, and is expected to provide more information on the increased border checks at some point this week.

This is not the first time there has been confusion at the Spain-Gibraltar border, however.

In 2021, The Local reported how a British national was refused entry into Spain because of a missing passport stamp that Spanish border officials had themselves forgotten to stamp, highlighting the confusion and potential misunderstandings that can happen while negotiations are still ongoing.

READ ALSO: Passport stamp or scan? What foreigners at Spain’s borders should expect

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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?