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"I appreciate people are anxious but my message would be one of reassurance"

Ambassador Hugh Elliott.
Ambassador Hugh Elliott. / SUR
  • New British Ambassador to Spain Hugh Elliott stresses that both Britain and Spain want minimum disruption for citizens after Brexit

Hugh Elliott may have only presented his credentials as ambassador to King Felipe in September, but he is no stranger to Spain. He met his Spanish wife while he was an English teacher in Salamanca and both his children were born in Madrid when the family lived there in the 1990s. He also used to come down to the Costa del Sol when he worked as a tour guide in Spain "many years ago" and remembers visiting Gibraltar to play hockey at the age of 20.

Now, however, his task is a more serious one; he represents the British government in Spain at a time when uncertainty still reigns over how and when Britain will leave the EU. He is optimistic that this will be on 31 October, with a deal, and that both countries have identical interests in protecting their citizens.

How are you settling in as ambassador?

I'm settling in well, although there's a lot that's new and different from when I was here in the 1990s. But we've had a very warm welcome here.

When you were appointed ambassador Theresa May was still prime minister and it was assumed that Brexit would have happened in March, well before you got here. Were you prepared for a different type of job, maybe just tying up loose ends?

My job is to make sure the fantastic bilateral relationship we've got and the amazing connections there are between our two countries continue to thrive whatever the institutional framework we're in. Of course Brexit is very important and things will change, but so many things won't change with Brexit, so it's not that different. We are where we are; we want to try to do a Brexit deal and there's lots of other stuff we want to carry on working together on.

Is representing the British government at the moment more of a challenge than you expected?

I don't think so. I'm very proud to represent the British government. I know there's been a lot of commentary about the way the debate is going in the UK but yes, Brexit is an issue on which there are very strong opinions. I think it's a sign of a really healthy democracy that those opinions are being debated. We've seen various things happening in parliament but I think the democratic institutions in the UK are really resilient and are working extremely well.

In a radio interview on Monday you said you were optimistic about the UK reaching a deal with the EU. Time's running out - are you still confident about that?

I am still optimistic about it, yes. Last week we put our proposals on the table; we have made a significant shift in accepting a single regulatory zone for the island of Ireland as we appreciate that preservation of the single market is a key issue for our EU counterparts, and we've put forward some very creative proposals over how to manage the customs challenge. I don't pretend that this is easy, but we are working hard to try to find a way through this.

So we can still assume that on November 1st the UK will be out of the EU...

That's the government's intention, yes. We want to have an agreement because that means we enter into a transition period, which gives us time to give stability to business and citizens; it minimises disruption and means that we can go ahead and negotiate a free-trade agreement to establish a clear framework for our future relationship with the EU.

Many British residents in Spain are still uncertain about how Brexit will leave them. Some have said they feel the Spanish government is doing more for them than the UK is, that they feel let down...

I've already had a number of meetings and conversations with groups representing British citizens in Spain including in Andalucía. I know that my colleagues at the consulate in Malaga are making a huge effort to give people all the information they need. It does mean changes, people have got to make certain preparation. The key thing I'd like to stress to your readers is that they make sure that they are correctly registered, that they have their green card or piece of paper, that if it's not possible to make an appointment - I appreciate there are some difficulties in getting appointments - I would encourage them to keep evidence that they were living in Spain on 31 October, joining the padrón, for example. Then they should make sure they are registered for healthcare and to switch their driving licence to a Spanish one. It's important to initiate that process now before 1 November, and to sign up for alerts on our Living in Spain guide. I appreciate people feel that they're being disrupted but we are doing everything we possibly can to minimise that.

Access to healthcare and other rights appears to depend on the Spanish Royal Decree being reciprocated by Britain. What's the situation on that at the moment?

We have different legal systems, there are different rules and regulations but we believe that we have made a very good offer to EU citizens resident in the UK to protect their rights and that that offer is reciprocal to the equally generous offer made by the Spanish government in the Royal Decree.

So discussions are ongoing with the Spanish government?

I've had conversations with the Spanish government about exactly this issue. We have identical interests: we want to protect EU citizens in the UK, we want them to continue to live, work and thrive and contribute in the UK. Spain has exactly the same interests with British citizens in Spain. I'm very clear about that from the conversations I've had with foreign minister Borrell down. There are details we need to work through, to make sure the technical processes are properly understood and our teams are working on that, but I'm very confident that overall we have a shared understanding about reciprocity.

- As ambassador, what would your message be to someone who has been listening to the consulate and has been getting their paperwork in order, but still has that niggling feeling that things might not be exactly as they have been before?

I appreciate that this is a time where people are anxious but my message would be one of reassurance that at a government level both the British government and the Spanish government want our respective citizens resident in each other's countries to have minimum disruption; that may feel flimsy or wishy-washy but it's not - it's a clear political commitment.

Thousands of people cross the border to Gibraltar every day. Is there close collaboration going on between Gibraltar, UK and Spain to alleviate the effects of a no-deal Brexit?

For the eventuality of a no-deal Brexit, of course the government of Gib has been working hard on its own preparations for that, with our support, and there have been conversations with the Spanish government about those issues. I'm very clear there's a shared objective to maintain fluidity on the border. There is a lot of goodwill to ensure that any disruption that many come from a no-deal Brexit, which I think is undesirable and unlikely, is kept to an absolute minimum.

And putting Brexit to one side if possible - what to you hope to achieve as ambassador?

I'd like to see this fantastic relationship we've got get even better and even stronger. It's extraordinary the amount of connections there are between the two countries, I'd like to see them better recognised as I think sometimes we're a bit too quiet about it. We fall into stereotypes about each other as countries which don't do justice to the sheer depth and breadth of the relationships that we have. Even this year over 18,000 million British visitors came into Spain, spending more than ever, and equally there are record numbers - 2.5 million - of Spaniards visiting the UK. More Spanish students are studying in the UK - there are over 13,000 - the business relationship is extremely deep as well. We've just had the news of another two-billion-pound investment from the Spanish company Cellnex in the UK. These are signs of a relationship that is thriving - it's my job to make sure that, irrespective of the institutional framework we're working in, that they continue to thrive and we continue to work incredibly closely together.