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

Unable to work, to get to medical appointments, to collect family from the airport or even to shop. Madrid-based journalist Simon Hunter talks to some of the UK driving licence holders in Spain who have been prevented from legally taking to the roads since May 1st.

'An avoidable nightmare': How UK licence holders in Spain are affected by driving debacle
A Renault 4 parked in Granada, with the majestic Alhambra in the background.Since May 1st, UK licence holders residing in Spain for more than 6 months can no longer drive. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

It’s a situation in which hundreds if not thousands of UK driving licence holders in Spain find themselves as negotiations between the Spanish and British authorities drag on over the exchange of vehicle data.

The latest weekly update by the British Embassy in Madrid on May 27th spoke of the “good progress towards an agreement” being made, but for the people who have been unable to drive in Spain for the past month, patience is wearing thin.

“I fell off a ladder the other day, I am now on two crutches and have a cast on my leg,” explained David Dawson, 73, who lives in Llanos del Peral, Almería.

“We live in a rural community, and right now I’m unable to walk and my wife is unable to drive our car. This licence business needs sorting out.”

The situation has arisen as a result of Brexit. Before the UK left the EU, British vehicle data was shared with Member States.

But Spain is now requesting access to data for UK-registered vehicles who commit traffic offences while on Spanish roads via an automated system, as part of a formal agreement for licence exchange for UK residents in Spain.

One of the sticking points in the negotiations has been that the British authorities want to keep the two issues separate.

A deadline for when UK licences would no longer be valid for residents who have been in Spain for more than six months was extended five times as talks continued but eventually expired on April 30th.

Those left with an invalid licence can now either take a new driving test in Spain or wait for an agreement between the two sides.

David Dawson’s story is similar to those of many who are in this situation, whereby through no fault of his own, he was unable to swap the document.

He told The Local that he and his wife arrived in Spain in December 2020 and tried to apply to exchange their licences. But their lawyer did not do as instructed and they missed the deadline as a result.

“Our nearest shop is around six kilometres away, the nearest large town is 20 kilometres away,” he said. “You can only imagine the difficulties we now face, with, worryingly, no solution in place. The whole issue is an avoidable nightmare.”

“Ariadne,” 62, who preferred not to supply her real name, suffered a similar experience.

“Our gestoría misinformed us regarding access to our NIE,” she explained, in reference to the Spanish tax identification number. “We were told that we didn’t have it in time to change our licence.

But it seems we already had access to the numbers and could have swapped it. Through no fault of our own, but rather Spanish bureaucracy, we are now stuck two years later as residents who are unable to drive.”

READ ALSO: What now UK licence holders in Spain?

Both Ariadne and her husband are disabled, and she said they would be unable to take a test in Spanish.

“It’s a desperate situation impacting on our quality of life,” she complained.

“We moved to Mallorca for an easier life, now it’s too hard.”

Maggie Parkinson, 51, who lives in Alicante, managed to apply for the licence exchange in September 2020, but was later told that the paperwork had been lost.

“I started working as a home carer earlier this year and I now have to give this up as I am not allowed to drive,” she told The Local.

“It’s not only affecting me but also my clients. We moved to Spain to explore the beautiful country and now we can’t. We need to continue with the extension whilst negotiations are still in place,” she argued.

The problem is not just affecting UK nationals, however. While Irish passport holders living in Spain have been spared the issues that Brexit brought with it, if they happen to hold a UK licence they find themselves in the same boat. Even Spaniards are suffering.

Sergio Cano, 34, is originally from Mallorca and obtained his driving licence while he was living in London.

In 2016 he moved back to Spain and only became aware of the changes in 2020. He missed the deadline to swap his British document for a Spanish one, and is now living in Madrid but unable to take to the roads.

“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “If they had told me we are not going to get an agreement, I would already have started the other way to try and get a driving test.”

He added that he doesn’t want to waste the time or pay the hundreds of euros that doing the test will cost to get a licence he already holds.

READ ALSO: How much does it cost to get your driving licence in Spain?

A spokesperson from Spain’s DGT traffic authority expressed bewilderment to The Local as to why the UK authorities have not been willing to put in a similar information-exchange system to the one that existed before, but added that a solution should be on the horizon in a matter of weeks.

This was echoed by a spokesperson from the British embassy, who told The Local: “We are in intensive talks with the Spanish government to reach an agreement to swap UK driving licences for Spanish ones.

We are hopeful that an agreement will be reached in the coming weeks and remain fully committed to making this happen.”

In the meantime, UK licence holders in Spain will have to find alternative, and often costly, ways to get around.

If you want to sign the official petition calling for the mutual recognition of UK and Spanish driving licences, click here. At 10,000 signatures, the UK government will respond to this petition.


Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


What is the latest on Gibraltar’s Brexit status?

With 2023 approaching and negotiations between Gibraltar, the UK, EU and Spain dragging on for yet another year, what is the latest on Gibraltar and Brexit? Will they reach a deal before New Year and how could it affect life in Gibraltar and Spain?

What is the latest on Gibraltar's Brexit status?

As British politics tries to move on from Brexit, the tiny British territory at the southern tip of Spain, Gibraltar, has been stuck in political limbo since the referendum all the way back in 2016.

Gibraltar, which voted in favour of Remain during the referendum by a whopping 96 percent, was not included in the Brexit deal and has instead relied on a framework agreement made between the UK and Spain on New Year’s Eve in 2020.

After that framework was laid out, it was hoped that the various parties – that is, the Gibraltarian government, Spain, the EU, and the UK – would build on it and quickly find a wider treaty agreement establishing Gibraltar’s place on the European mainland in the post-Brexit world.

It was thought that Gibraltar could enter into a common travel area with the Schengen zone, limiting border controls and essentially creating a custom-made customs arrangement with the EU.

But since then, the negotiation process has stopped and started, with no deal being made and uncertainty dragging on through 2021.

Despite all parties still being relatively optimistic in the spring of 2022, no resolution has been found and 2023 is approaching.

Relying on the framework agreement alone, uncertainty about what exactly the rules are and how they should be implemented have caused confusion and long delays on the border.

The roadblocks

Progress in the multi-faceted negotiations to bash out a treaty and determine Gibraltar’s place in the post-Brexit world have repeatedly stumbled over the same roadblocks.

The main one is the issue of the border. Known in Spain and Gibraltar as La Línea – meaning ‘the line’ in reference to the Spanish town directly across the border, La Línea de la Concepción – the subject of the border and who exactly will patrol it (and on which side) has been a constant sticking point in negotiations.

Madrid and Brussels have approached the British government with a proposal for removing the border fence between Spain and Gibraltar in order to ease freedom of movement, Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said in late November 2022. There has been no immediate response from London.

The Gibraltarians refuse to accept Spanish boots on the ground and would prefer the European-wide Frontex border force. The British government feel this would be an impingement on British sovereignty. There’s also been the persistent issues of VAT and corporation tax considerations, as well as the British Navy base and how to police the waters around it.

Though there had been reports that the ongoing British driving license in Spain fiasco had been one of the reasons negotiations had stalled, the British ambassador to Spain Hugh Elliot categorically denied any connection between the issue of Gibraltar’s Brexit deal and British driving licence recognition earlier in November.

READ ALSO: CONFIRMED: Deal on UK licences in Spain agreed but still no exchange date

On different pages?

Not only do the long-standing sticking points remain, but it also seems that the various negotiating parties are on slightly different pages with regards to how exactly each seems to think the negotiations are going.

Judging by reports in the Spanish press in recent weeks, it appears that many in Spain may believe the negotiations are wrapping up and a conclusion could be found by New Year. This perception comes largely from comments made by Pascual Navarro, Spain’s State Secretary to the EU. Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Navarro claimed that negotiations have advanced so well that they were now only working ‘on the commas’ of the text – that is to say, tidying it up.

According to Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, though negotiations are ongoing, “we’re not there yet”. (Photo: JORGE GUERRERO/AFP)

“No issue that is blocked,” he said. “All of the text is on the table.” A full treaty, he suggested, could be signed “before the end of the year.”

Yet it seems the Gibraltarians don’t quite see the progress as positively as their neighbours. Last week the Gibraltar government, known as No.6, acknowledged Navarro’s optimism.

According to Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo however, though negotiations are ongoing, “we’re not there yet”.

No.6 remains positive and hopes for a deal, but in recent weeks has also published technical contingency plans for businesses to prepare for what they are calling a ‘Non-Negotiated Outcome’ – effectively a ‘no-deal’ in normal Brexit jargon.

The UK, however, seem to be somewhere in the middle. Like Navarro, the British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly recently suggested at a House of Commons select committee that only “a relatively small number” of issues remain to be resolved.

However, he also acknowledged the possibility of a non-negotiated outcome. “I think it’s legitimate to look at that [planning for a non-negotiated outcome] as part of our thinking,” Mr Cleverly said. “But obviously we are trying to avoid an NNO.”

Election year

If no deal is found by New Year, that would mean that negotiations drag into 2023 – election years for both Picardo and Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s Prime Minister.

Gibraltar is expected to have elections sometime in the second-half of the year, and Sánchez has to call an election by the end of 2023.

In many ways, Spanish domestic politics has the potential to play a far greater role in Gibraltar’s fate than British politics. In fact, the shadow of Spanish politics looms over these negotiations and the future relationship between Spain and Gibraltar, the UK and Spain, and the UK and EU.

If Sánchez’s PSOE were to lose the election, which according to the latest polling data is the most probable outcome, then it would be likely that Spain’s centre-right party PP would seek to renegotiate, if not outright reject, any deal made.

READ ALSO: Who will win Spain’s 2023 election – Sánchez or Feijóo?

If PP are unable to secure a ruling majority, however, they may well be forced to rely on the far-right party Vox, who have often used nationalist anti-Gibraltar rhetoric as a political weapon. If Vox were to enter into government, which is unlikely but a possibility, it’s safe to say any agreement – if one is even reached before then – would be torn up and the Spanish government would take a much harder line in negotiations.

As the consequences of Brexit churn on in Britain, in Gibraltar uncertainty looms.