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Experts from UK and Spain call for positive approach to Brexit at top-level forum in Malaga

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Speakers and organisers at the Brexit seminar. / MIGUE FERNÁNDEZ

  • The British Ambassador was among the speakers at the event organised by SUR newspaper with Unicaja Foundation and Malaga city hall

As the Brexit date approaches, experts from different fields in both the UK and Spain got together in Malaga on Thursday to analyse a scenario that is still uncertain and changing.

On the same day as Theresa May held further meetings in Brussels in an attempt to find a way out of the current impasse, SUR, the Unicaja Foundation and Malaga city hall organised a morning of discussion and debate: Brexit. Views and Perspectives.

While a variety of different attitudes towards Brexit were expressed, all the speakers agreed on one thing: if the UK’s exit from the EU is inevitable, it has to be done in a way that causes least damage to both the UK and Spain.

A “positive approach” is what is needed to face up to the “challenge” posed by Brexit, said the British ambassador to Spain, Simon Manley, who stressed that the relationship between the two countries was too strong to be damaged by the exit from the EU.

Tourism, commerce and residents’ rights were among the issues discussed by the experts who laid out their views of the different possibilities that could occur, depending on the type of Brexit the UK ends up with.

Thursday’s developments in Brussels indicate that there is still a chance for the UK to leave the EU with a deal, a situation that would come as a relief to residents and business owners alike.

The possibility of Theresa May asking for an extension to the deadline, giving the country more time to negotiate, was thought likely by some of the speakers, especially two Spanish residents in the UK, solicitor Ignacio Morillas-Paredes, and hospitality entrepreneur, Javier Fernández Hidalgo.

Meanwhile Simon Manley and the senior Finance and Economic officer at the British Embassy in Madrid, Paul Clark, were confident that an orderly Brexit would be achieved.

The possibility of a “hard” or no-deal Brexit was also considered by all the speakers.

Fernando Valdés, the undersecretary for Industry, Trade and Tourism at the Spanish government, outlined, as did Simon Manley, the “political declaration” drawn up between the two countries.

This, said Manley, shows that both Spain and the UK want to build a new strong relationship which will involve free trade, the free flow of tourists, secure air links collaboration between security forces and the maintenance of the rights of citizens from each country living in the other.

Valdés explained that the political declaration laid down the guidelines for the future relationship between the two countries. Meanwhile, he said, the Spanish government is drawing up a contingency plan to put into action in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

“It is fundamental that we maintain citizens’ rights and commercial relations and guarantee financial services,” summed up the undersecretary.

A decree, he explained, due to be passed by the cabinet later this month, would guarantee these rights for British citizens and businesses in Spain, providing the guarantee is reciprocated by the British government to the benefit of Spaniards in the UK.

Valdés shared Manley’s positive tone, stating that he was confident the effects would be reduced to a minimum.

New opportunities

What Valdés and Manley did not agree on, however, was the Spanish government’s opinion that Brexit was not a good thing for anyone, not for British citizens or for the rest of the EU. The ambassador preferred to talk of the new scenario being a new opportunity for strong relations.

Eduardo Barrachina, the president of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in the UK, was also positive about the general Brexit scenario, although, like the other speakers he admitted that the Irish border and the backstop situation was the major stumbling block.

He said that if the EU did agree to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, which so far is not the case, any new deal would have to be on the table by 23 February for its to go through parliament in time.

While he agreed that the extension of Article 50 was a possibility, in the event of a no-deal he said that the first few months would be complicated. Nevertheless he pointed out that the British government had made provision so that some 19,000 acts in EU legislation would be automatically incorporated into British legislation on the UK’s exit, therefore regulations will be similar.

“Businesses can be reassured,” he said, although he warned that a new commercial agreement could not be achieved before 29 March.

“Customs tariffs of 0% are planned at first, although that does not please everyone,” he said.

Best for business

He also said that the UK and Spain had “done their homework” with regard to citizens’ and workers’ rights, explaining how the UK had made it simple for EU citizens to apply for resident status, using an app.

He added that the UK was still the “best country in the world for doing business” and that so far the members of the Spanish chamber of commerce had not announced their departure from Britain.

Despite new deals, the relationship will never be the same again, pointed out Barrachina.

“We can hope for closer relations, but we’ll never share a space like the European Union. Deal or no deal, Brexit does no finish in March. There will be years of strategies; this is a process that will go on for a time,” he concluded.

Barrachina mentioned the idea of a second referendum or general elections, but both he said required a legislative process of several months. In any case, he said, May had won the recent vote of no confidence, so elections “don’t seem to be a solution”.

Lord Daniel Brennan, another of the guest speakers invited by SUR, explained that it was important to understand what had happened in the UK. The Labour peer compared Brexit to a medical condition with different symptoms. He ran through the reasons why the British voted in favour of Brexit in the referendum. He pointed out how divided the country is now, with Scotland and Northern Ireland being in favour of staying in the EU and England and Wales voting to leave. He also highlighted the difference between the votes in London and other major cities (remain) and smaller towns and rural areas (leave), as well as the difference between generations.

No plan

“The Brexiteers didn’t have a coherent plan,” he said, but the Remainers did not campaign enough, which helps explain the result of the referendum.

He was critical of the government’s handling of Brexit, but admitted that all three of UK’s Brexit negotiators had found themselves in a situation “above their heads”.

Speaking perfect Spanish Lord Brennan, who is celebrating 50 years married to his Spanish wife, had praise for Malaga. “It is a city where everyone smiles,” he said, “because it’s a city that functions well.”

The final speaker of the morning was BBC World News presenter Timothy Willcox, who stressed how vital it is for the UK to reach an agreement with the EU before it leaves.

He described the division in the country as “traumatic” and the possibility of a no-deal exit was a “nightmare”. There would be costs on all sides, he said, citing commerce and agriculture, although he admitted that some countries, like Ireland, would suffer more than others.

The next few weeks will clear up some of the question marks hanging over the issue of Brexit.

What Thursday’s event proved, however, was that the UK and Spain are determined not to let Brexit damage the relationship between the two countries.

“We have to look to the future thinking about the relationship we want for our children and grandchildren,” concluded Simon Manley. “We can only overcome challenges by facing them together.”