Last Monday, social gatherings indoors were once again allowed in the United Kingdom. The country, like most of Europe, is gradually lifting the coronavirus restrictions that have been in place for nearly a year, and the Spanish government’s lack of representation in the UK is starting to turn into a symbolic, practical and political problem. For four months – practically the same time that Brexit has been a legal reality – there has been no ambassador in the Spanish embassy in London.
The former top diplomat in the country, Carlos Bastarreche, turned 70 last November, which is the age at which public officials must retire. But it was a difficult time to find a replacement, given that the UK government and European Commission were continuing to negotiate a trade deal ahead of the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31. There was the real possibility that the UK would leave the European Union without a future trade and cooperation agreement.
The Spanish government wanted stability while the negotiations on the issue of Brexit and the future of Gibraltar, the British Overseas Territory located in the south of the Iberian peninsula, continued. On the request of the government, Bastarreche agreed to remain in the role temporarily, while a decision was made about who to name as the next ambassador. But by February of this year, no decision had been made. Bastarreche announced his resignation once again, giving several weeks of notice, although this time he made it clear he would not stay any longer. He had been in the role for four years, since taking over from Federico Trillo, a former minister of the José María Aznar government, in 2017.
The vacancy sends the message that Boris Johnson, like Donald Trump, is a leader no government wants to be associated with
According to Spain’s secretary of state for the EU, Juan González-Barba, since Bastarreche’s resignation, the daily management of the Spanish embassy has fallen to those in charge of business and diplomat José María Fernández López de Turiso, considered the second-in-command. But according to sources in London, who spoke to EL PAÍS on the condition of anonymity, the fact that no new ambassador has been appointed is starting to cause concern. The conclusion is unanimous: it is incomprehensible that such an important role remains vacant.
As well as looking bad, it also sends the message that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, like former US president Donald Trump, is a leader no government wants to be associated with.
There are practical consequences as well, as only the ambassador can approve spending for events in diplomatic offices. In modern international relations, it is key for embassies to keep alliances and interest between countries alive and active. Because there is no ambassador, the Spanish embassy in London could not, for example, organize a celebration for Spain’s National Day. What’s more, Brexit has created a series of bureaucratic problems that are more difficult to solve without an ambassador, such as obtaining visas for staff who have been granted internships to work at the embassy. These positions are key for the daily running of the headquarters and highly sought after by those looking for this type of training. Obtaining visas for Spanish teachers who give classes in the Cañada Blanch Institute, a symbol of Spanish culture in London, is also an issue. Every problem can be solved, but more doors are opened and responses come back faster when the person calling is the ambassador.
The situation also has political implications. As a result of Brexit, the UK no longer belongs to the European Council nor is privy to the daily issues in Brussels. The Spanish government is scrupulously respecting the idea that the European Commission should be the one to negotiate all issues concerning the new relationship with the Johnson administration. But it is faced with a new reality in which the UK seeks and values bilateral relations. According to 2018 data from the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in the UK, direct Spanish investment in UK territory was €77.54 billion – nearly 17% of all foreign investment.
The embassy’s consulting services and economic support have worked effectively in what for many businesses have been months of great uncertainty. In this sense, relations between important countries take care of themselves. But like a machine, “it is much more efficient when properly greased,” explains a source close to the embassy. The ambassador can play an important role as a bridge between the UK government and large Spanish businesses, helping to apply pressure to quicken responses and approvals for certain licenses.
Then there are the political crises that must be solved or explained. No one doubts the efforts made by the Spanish Foreign Affairs Ministry to help the young woman from Valencia who spent four days in a temporary holding center due to the UK’s tough new immigration laws. But it is likely that a call from the Spanish ambassador would have sped up her release. An ambassador could also have helped explain the recent crisis between Spain and Morocco, in which thousands of migrants were allowed to breach the Spanish city of Ceuta. By providing more details on the political and historical context of the situation, an ambassador could have helped prevent the media from reaching partial, incomplete and unfair conclusions. And to remind the press that Gibraltar is on the other side of the Strait.
The Spanish community in London has been hotly debating who will finally be named the new ambassador. There are even bets on who will be picked, with some names more likely than others. Sources from the Foreign Ministry have assured EL PAÍS that a package of appointments is being prepared for various ambassador roles, among which, most likely, will be the post in the UK.
Meanwhile, there could be two reasons why Spain has not yet chosen someone for London: either there are a range of candidates and no one has been selected yet, or a candidate has been decided on, but it is not a good time politically to announce their appointment. In the meantime, precisely as the UK is redefining its foreign politics, the Spanish embassy in London still has a vacancy sign hanging.
English version by Melissa Kitson.