Spain is demanding reciprocity from the United Kingdom in one of the most sensitive aspects of Brexit: treatment of its migrants. The Spanish government has urgently passed legislation in order to protect the rights of the 365,967 Britons who are officially resident in the country, but is yet to see similar mechanisms put in place in the United Kingdom for the Spaniards who have made that country their home. The caretaker foreign minister, Josep Borrell, has already conveyed this concern to the British government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and has warned that, if there is no equivalent move from the UK as the country leaves the European Union, the Spanish framework for British residents will decline.
Luis Marco Aguiriano, Spain’s secretary of state for the EU
The future of more than half a million people – the 365,967 Britons who officially live in Spain and the 180,000 Spaniards who reside in the United Kingdom – will depend on the way that the divorce between London and Brussels is consummated. Both the governments of caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and of Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party have said that they want to preserve the rights of this collective, but the formulas used to do so differ. The United Kingdom has put in place a general scheme for all European Union citizens – Spaniards among them – that, with some nuances, freezes the range of rights that they currently enjoy under the rules of the European Union. The mechanism consists of two categories: “settled status,” with very generous conditions, and so-called “pre-settled status,” which carries with it fewer rights. The official figures from the UK show a fall in the proportion of citizens who fall into the former category. In April of this year, when the system officially began, 66% of applicants received settled status. Today the percentage has fallen to 57%.
Spain has opted for a different route. In March, the government approved a law by royal decree that went into great detail to cover a potential “hard Brexit” – i.e. the UK crashing out of the bloc without a deal. This legislation covers nearly all of the facets of daily life for citizens, including the recognition of university degrees and driving licenses, as well as healthcare coverage and work permits. It also guarantees, with some limitations, the continuance of the activity of British companies that are operating in Spain.
The UK’s current Brexit minister, Steve Barclay, met last week in Madrid with Spain’s caretaker Foreign Minister Josep Borrell. The rights of citizens, one of the most symbolic elements of Brexit, were a key part of the debate. Barclay expressed his gratitude for the law that had been approved by Spain, which is the country of choice for the majority of Britons who opt to live in the EU. But Borrell warned the minister that these advantageous conditions will only be maintained if they are reciprocal, a standpoint about which the British delegation requested clarifications.
“We have told them that our royal decree will ensure that everything remains the same in the case of a no-deal Brexit,” said Luis Marco Aguiriano, Spain’s secretary of state for the EU, and who took part in the meeting with the British minister last Thursday. Speaking to EL PAÍS via telephone, he added: “But for that, reciprocity is necessary. And reciprocity cannot be guaranteed in half-measures – it is either there, or it isn’t.”
In order to clarify all of the small print, both sides will be meeting again in the first week of October
From the start, the royal decree includes that conditionality. Article two of the legislation stipulates that if, within two months, the British authorities do not grant “reciprocal treatment” to Spanish citizens and companies, “the measures covered [by the legal text] will be suspended.” Aguiriano pointed to this requirement and warned that the UK has not currently covered it in law.
In response, the British authorities have said that their scheme to extend the rights of EU citizens who are already living in the country guarantees the conditions that are covered by the Spanish decree. The plan from London includes the right to work, to use the healthcare system, to have access to education, to receive benefits such as pensions and to spend time outside of the UK, albeit with a limit of five years, after which “settled status” would be lost. Diplomatic sources argue that exact matches cannot be sought between the two texts, but they add that the requisites required by the Spanish government have been met. “Although there may be some elements that will require further development, for our part we consider it to have been met,” British sources argue.
In order to clarify all of the small print, both sides will be meeting again in the first week of October. On this occasion, political representatives will not attend, but rather the heads of more technical levels. The aim is to clear up as much as possible the uncertainty over Brexit, which is currently due to take place on October 31. For now there are no guarantees that the exit will take place with a deal between London and Brussels.
Aside from the coverage that it offers, the British scheme to obtain permanent residency after Brexit is not automatic. A total of 86,400 Spaniards have applied for this protected status since August 31, according to data from the British government. That accounts for nearly 7% of all the European requests, which makes Spanish residents the fifth-most-numerous collective. The Foreign Affairs Ministry calculates that of this group, around 70,000 have already secured settled status, a high percentage (81%), but not exhaustive.
English version by Simon Hunter.