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BREXIT

UK driving licences in Spain: When no news is bad news

The UK Ambassador to Spain has given an update on the driving licence debacle, with nothing new to genuinely give hope to the thousands of in-limbo drivers whose increasing frustration has led one group to try and take matters into their own hands.

spain uk licences hold-up
Thousands of UK licence holders in Spain have to watch as their cars sit idle gathering dust as negotiations over a licence exchange with Spanish authorities move at a snail's pace (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

It’s been almost five months since UK driving licence holders residing in Spain were told they could no longer drive on Spanish roads. 

Since that fateful May 1st, an unnamed number of the approximately 400,000 UK nationals who are residents in Spain, as well as hundreds if not thousands of Spaniards and foreign nationals who passed their driving test in the UK, have not been able to use their vehicles in Spain or even rent one. 

What adds insult to injury is that British tourists visiting Spain can rent a car without any issue. The fact that Spanish licence holders living in the UK can also continue to exchange their permits in the UK 21 months after Brexit came into force is equally hard to swallow.

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

The latest update from UK Ambassador to Spain Hugh Elliott on September 27th has done little to quell the anger and sense of helplessness felt by those caught in this bureaucratic rabbit hole.

“I wanted to talk to you personally about the driving licences negotiations, which I know are continuing to have a serious impact on many of you,” Elliott began by saying.

“As the government’s representative in Spain, I hear and understand your frustrations. I too am frustrated by the pace.

“We previously thought, we genuinely thought, that we’d have concluded negotiations by the summer. 

“Many of you have quite rightly mentioned that I expressed the hope to you that we’d have you back on the road by the end of July.

“Now the truth is it has taken much longer, as there have been unforeseen issues that we have been working very hard to resolve. 

“And I’m as disappointed as you are by the length of time that this is actually taking. 

“But, please, be assured that we are resolving those issues, one by one. There are only a couple of issues left, but they are complex.”

It has previously been suggested by the UK Embassy that Spain has asked for data provision to form part of the exchange agreement, and that British authorities were reluctant to share said information on British drivers’ records, including possible infractions. 

Whether this is still one of the causes of the holdups is unknown, given how opaque the Embassy is being in this regard. 

“We’re working on this every day, it remains a priority,” the UK Ambassador continued.

“There is a lot going on behind the scenes, even if it doesn’t feel like it to you. 

“I know too that you want a timescale and you want an update after every meeting.

“But I’m afraid I just can’t give you those things in this negotiation.” 

The ambassador’s words are unlikely to appease those who are still unable to drive. 

A few weeks ago, a Facebook group called “Invasion of the British embassy in Madrid for the DL exchange issue” was set up, which so far has more than 400 members. 

The group’s administrator, Pascal Siegmund, is looking to set up a meeting with the British Embassy and Spanish authorities to shed light on the impact that not being allowed to drive is having on the life of thousands of UK licence holders in Spain. 

Many of those affected are sharing their stories online, explaining how, due to administrative errors on the part of Spain’s DGT traffic authority, they were unable to process their licence exchange before the deadline. 

This contrasts with the little sympathy shown by UK licence holders who were able to exchange and other commentators, who accuse those in limbo of not having bothered to complete the process, arguing that it’s essentially their own fault.

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

“Many of you also continue to ask why you can’t drive while the talks are continuing,” Elliott remarked.

“It is not in the gift of the UK government to reinstate the measures which previously allowed you to continue to drive whilst the negotiations were ongoing earlier in the year. 

“As we said previously, we did request the reinstatement of those measures several times, but this wasn’t granted.”

It’s worth noting that since the news broke on May 1st that UK licence holders residing in Spain for more than six months could no longer drive, no Spanish news outlet has covered the story again. 

Pressure from citizen groups such as the one recently set up and increased awareness about the issue in English-language news sites such as The Local Spain is perhaps the best chance in-limbo drivers have of their voices being heard and the driving licence debacle being finally fixed. 

“I’d say we’re genuinely still making progress,” UK Ambassador Elliott concluded, practically the same message as in previous updates.

“I get how frustrating it is to hear that, but we are making progress. We’re in discussions almost daily about outstanding issues. 

“And I remain very optimistic that we will reach an agreement and hope it will be soon. 

“But as I say, I can’t give you a definitive timetable. 

“And so, the advice that we have been giving all along, which is that you should consider taking the Spanish test if you do need to drive urgently, remains valid. Though we appreciate that’s hard.”

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BREXIT

How do other EU countries’ post-Brexit residence permits compare to Spain?

Following the news that Denmark plans to deport a UK national who failed to apply for post-Brexit residence status in time, we look at how Spain and other EU countries have applied residency permit rules following the UK's official withdrawal.

How do other EU countries’ post-Brexit residence permits compare to Spain?

Phil Russell, a UK national who lives in Denmark with his Danish partner, submitted an application for a post-Brexit residence permit four days after the December 31st, 2021 deadline.

Russell has since been informed he must leave the country by December 6th but has the right to appeal the decision. He has notified authorities that he intends to appeal and his residence and working rights in Denmark are protected while the appeal is ongoing.

Under Denmark’s application of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, British nationals who moved to Denmark under EU free movement rules before December 31st, 2020 were required to submit an application for new residence status and a new residence document by the end of 2021.

Up to September 30th, Danish authorities have received 290 late applications for post-Brexit continued residency status.

Decisions on some applications made after the deadline are still being processed, meaning it is not clear how many UK nationals have already or could yet lose their residency rights.

Below, we look at how Denmark’s approach to the post-Brexit residency process compares to Spain’s and other EU countries.

Spain

Compared to Denmark, Spanish authorities have been lenient with how Brits can guarantee their Withdrawal Agreement rights.

In July 2020, they introduced a new type of TIE card (the residency document for non-EU nationals in Spain) which stipulates their WA rights. 

More than two years on, it isn’t compulsory for UK nationals living in Spain who already had the EU green residence certificate to exchange it for a TIE, but they have been advised to do so as the new ID is biometric and can avoid any issues with airport officials not recognising the old photo-less document.

The main problems that have arisen have been for under-the-radar Britons who never registered prior to Brexit coming into effect on January 1st 2021, and others who have been unable to prove they were living in Spain before that date.

READ MORE: Why some residency applications by Britons in Spain are rejected (and how to appeal)

In September 2021, we covered how some people in that situation had been told to leave at (sometimes very) short notice and apply for a non-EU residency visa such as the non-lucrative visa if their residency application is rejected.

But as Age in Spain – one of the other groups currently helping Britons with residency applications and appeals – told The Local Spain: “In our experience, rejection of residency applications is actually quite unusual”.

However, unregistered applicants have been asked to show more paperwork and proof than those who were just exchanging their green certificates for TIEs.

There is no evidence that Spain has deported any UK nationals. In fact, Spanish authorities actively sought to dispel myths about this propagated in the UK tabloids.

There are now more than 407,000 UK nationals who are currently registered in Spain in 2022, a number which has increased by at least 30,000 since 2021 (how many are still under the radar is unknown). 

This increase reflects the wide coverage and advice that the UK embassy and English-language media and forums have provided to unregistered Brits, as well as the overall tolerant and helpful attitude of Spanish migration authorities. 

Sweden

On its website, the Swedish Migration Agency says it “can accept an application for residence status that has come in after” its deadline which, like in Denmark, was December 31st 2021.

“This presupposes that there are reasonable grounds for why you did not apply in time. A review will be done of each individual case,” the agency says.

People with permanent residence permits have the right to continue to stay in Sweden as usual even after the deadline, according to the Migration Agency. Those with temporary residence permits in Sweden may need to apply for a work permit.

The Swedish rules have nevertheless caused some uncertainty for resident Britons.

According to a section on the Migration Agency website, post-Brexit residence status “applies indefinitely”. The certificate which was issued to those who applied before the deadline of December 31st 2021, however, is only valid for five years. 

This has left many of those holding the certificate concerned that laws might change to prevent them from renewing their certificate when that period ends. 

READ ALSO:

France

Like Denmark, application for a post-Brexit residence card was required in France.

In June 2021, the French government extended the deadline to apply for residency for British nationals.

France extended its deadline due to high demand and new Covid-19 restrictions in 2021, and because French authorities were aware many Britons were unlikely to meet the original deadline.

All Brits who were living in France before December 30th 2020 needed to apply for a residency permit known as a carte de séjour. The official deadline to do so was Wednesday, June 30th.

However with an estimated 25,000 Brits still to apply and thousands more still waiting for their application to be processed, French authorities decided to extend the deadline to September 30th, 2021. 

Italy

Italy’s post-Brexit card isn’t mandatory but the British Embassy in Italy advises residents to apply for it to prove their status under the Withdrawal Agreement.

This means you don’t need a residency card if you have alternative proof of pre-Brexit residency.

However, while Italian authorities have often accepted other forms of proof, they have also sometimes required the card, causing some level of uncertainty.

READ ALSO: How many of Italy’s British residents have successfully applied for a post-Brexit residency card?

Germany

Residence rights after Brexit were automatically granted to British nationals who lived in Germany prior to the deadline, so they don’t need Germany’s residence card – although it is still recommended-

There have been reports of passport stamping for British residents in Germany, even if they have the residence card.

Overall, Germany has a lenient system, transferring rights automatically and without demand application for a new card or updated residence status.

READ ALSO: How Brits can prove their post-Brexit rights in Germany – before they get their residence card

The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement’s Article 5 states that the EU and UK must “take all appropriate measures, whether general or particular, to ensure fulfilment of the obligations arising from this Agreement and shall refrain from any measures which could jeopardise the attainment of the objectives of this Agreement.”

One of the stated objectives of the agreement is to protect the rights of citizens to continue living and working in their respective countries after Brexit.

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