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British Ambassador Hugh Elliott in the SUR newspaper offices during his visit on Tuesday. MIGUE FERNÁNDEZ
'The vibrant contribution Brits make to their communities in Spain is what has struck me most'
Interview

'The vibrant contribution Brits make to their communities in Spain is what has struck me most'

Hugh Elliott, British Ambassador to Spain ·

Approaching the end of his tenure in Madrid, Elliott looks back at the success stories, challenges and, above all, people who have left their mark

Rachel Haynes

Malaga

Friday, 31 May 2024, 18:43

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It has been an eventful five years since Hugh Elliott landed in Madrid to take on the role of British Ambassador to Spain. He was expecting to have to deal with the consequences of the UK's departure from the EU but he had not envisaged having to contend with a global pandemic. These challenges, however, revealed the resourcefulness and generosity of the "extraordinary people doing amazing things" he came across in all the communities of British residents in Spain.

Elliott, who will be handing over to his successor, Alex Ellis, later this summer, spoke to SUR in English prior to attending this newspaper's Top International Business Guide and Awards presentation on Tuesday this week.

You are here to help SUR in English launch its international business guide. How important is the relationship between Andalucía and British business?

It's increasingly important. What I've seen in my last five years is a significant growth of Andalucía and Malaga in particular as a place for companies to set up. And the tech side is quite extraordinary. I'm about to visit Vodafone's new centre here, just one example of British companies across sectors choosing Malaga.

And Brexit hasn't made it more complicated for UK firms?

Britain is the biggest international investor in Andalucía. I think the numbers speak for themselves.

Business

"British companies are the biggest international investors in Andalucía; the numbers speak for themselves"

Brexit has added an extra complication at passport control for UK tourists to Spain. Will the new EU Entry/Exit system expected to be brought in this autumn make this better or worse?

This will be a new biometric system which, once it's implemented, will mean that people will not need to have their passport stamped necessarily. So that offers the prospect, once it's up and running, of a smoother experience at the airports for British visitors.

But there could be issues during its implementation?

With any new system in a place like Malaga where there are a lot of flights coming in and out from the United Kingdom, you don't know until it's been put in place, but we're in touch with the Spanish authorities, with the interior ministry, with the airports authority and of course with the airlines and everyone involved in the introduction of this new system so that we can understand what's planned and help communicate those plans to make sure the British visitors and residents have got the latest information about what they'll need to do to register and how it will work afterwards.

Border Control

"The new biometric system offers the prospect, once it's up and running, of a smoother experience at the airports for British visitors"

Hugh Elliott in the SUR newspaper library.
Hugh Elliott in the SUR newspaper library. Migue Fernández

And as a result you are encouraging British residents using an old green certificate to get their TIE (foreigners ID card) if they haven't got one already.

All the stories I hear from the British communities across Spain are that life is easier with the TIE - it's as simple as that. With the added incentive that this will facilitate your move across the border once the automatic system is in place.

We were at one point hopeful that Spain would bring in a change to the 90/180 day rule for home owners. But is that likely?

I still hear from British citizens who ask, 'why does the UK allow 180 days in 365 and Spain only 90 in 180?'. The explanation is that it's an EU rule; it's what was agreed. But if Spain should choose to change that then I personally see that as a win-win, as British visitors here for a longer period of time contribute a great deal to local communities. One of the things that has really struck me in my five years here has been just what a vibrant contribution Brits do make to communities in Spain.

It had been hoped that there would be a deal over the Gibraltar border status before the EU elections; are they at a stalemate?

The last formal discussions took place on 16 May in Brussels. We continue to make good progress. This is a process that has been going on for some time. The UK has been working shoulder to shoulder with the government of Gibraltar to try to secure a deal that is in everyone's interest; for Gibraltar, for the Campo de Gibraltar, for the benefit of everybody.

Will the EU or UK elections interrupt progress?

These talks have been going on in one form or another for most of my time here and during that time we've had all sorts of elections, both in UK and Spain, and of course that has an impact, but the negotiations have continued. We have a tremendously clear will and commitment on the part of the Commission, the Spanish government, the government of Gibraltar and ourselves. What we're trying to do is a hard thing to do, everybody is aware of that, but the commitment to get the right result for everybody is there.

Gibraltar

"What we're trying to do is a hard thing to do, everybody is aware of that, but the commitment to get the right result for everybody is there"

If you had to name three highlights of your time as ambassador to Spain, what would they be?

People, people and people. The most extraordinary thing about this job are the people you meet travelling around this extraordinary country with its wealth of connections to the UK. There is a story around every corner and that is partly due to the 416,000 or so British residents here and the 380,000 Spanish residents in the UK and partly the 17.3 million tourists who were here last year, more this year, and partly the sheer wealth of the commercial relationship we were talking about before.

In the British communities you find around Spain I meet extraordinary people who do amazing things. I was reading your paper this week and saw that Cudeca had 2,000 people out for their Walkathon. It's amazing. It was Joan Hunt OBE who put that together and look where that's come! And then there are the Spanish who are so welcoming, hospitable, in ways that sometimes astonish me.

People

"The most extraordinary thing about this job are the people you meet travelling around this country with its wealth of connections to the UK"

Then the people who work in our eight consulates around the country with extraordinary dedication. We saw this during the complications of Brexit. It meant a lot of change for people here and people visiting. When Thomas Cook sadly went bust and there were hundreds of thousands of people dotted around Spain trying to get home, everybody mucked in to go and help solve those problems.

And then of course the pandemic: I remember the amazing work that loads of people did in my teams; there are around 300 of us in the embassy and consulates around Spain. People went from working physically to remotely almost overnight and working flat out trying to help people stay safe and get through what was a difficult situation.

So there's no need to ask what the biggest challenge has been.

The pandemic was a most extraordinary challenge. It was nothing any of us had ever envisaged or conceived of; we had no idea how that was going to affect our lives, of the tragedies and upheaval it was going to bring. Any organisation managing and living through that had a huge amount of work, understanding rules and regulations and policies and processes and the evolution of the health situation in Spain and in the UK.

Crime

"I don’t think there is anywhere here that is safe for British criminals. We have an extraordinarily close cooperation between our law enforcement agencies"

Are you going to be haunted forever more by the words "driving licence"?

There was a time when people did come up to me if I was flying back to the UK and discuss driving licences with me in an emotional way, but I completely understand that - it really affected people in their everyday lives. Our team worked very hard to resolve it; it took much longer than we hoped, but we got there.

What three things will you be leaving in the in-tray for the next ambassador?

[A long pause for thought] That’s an excellent question. The first thing is that there will be no shortage of stuff sitting in the in-tray; the second is that the next ambassador is a very good friend of mine so I wouldn’t do anything to make his life difficult. I was thinking of saying that occasionally something to keep you going through the day would be quite useful, but instead I would say, just pop out and have a glass of coke or a ‘caña’ and a nice ‘pincho’ and carry on.

Crime reports on the Costa del Sol, especially those related to shootings and organised crime, more often than not mention international suspects, many of them Brits. How are the two countries working together to fight crime?

It is an unfortunate consequence of that proximity of relationship we enjoy that we find all walks of life that end up in Spain and in Andalucía. We have an extraordinarily close cooperation between our law enforcement agencies, we run all sorts of joint campaigns such as our most-wanted campaigns when we have sought public support to try to identify criminals who are wanted in the UK and citizens in Spain have collaborated to help track them down with tremendous success. I don’t think there is anywhere here that is safe for British criminals and that will continue for as long as it needs to continue. My hope is that success continues and that the need reduces over time. The cooperation is simply excellent.

Tourism

"The pandemic has taught us first of all that tourism is the lifeblood of so many parts of this wonderful country"

You mentioned earlier the millions of British tourists who come to Spain. Meanwhile popular destinations, such as the Canary Islands, are reacting against overcrowding and calling for a different model. Is this going to be an ongoing problem?

I think every tourist destination in Europe is going to struggle with numbers and the impact of those numbers on ‘convivencia’ . During the pandemic the question I was asked by everyone was ‘when are the British tourists coming back?' Now the questions are related to how do you deal with the pressures that the numbers of tourists bring.

The pandemic has taught us first of all that tourism is the lifeblood of so many parts of this wonderful country and it’s taught us to appreciate that and everything that tourism brings with it. The numbers bring huge benefit; the average British tourists probably spend more than certainly many of their European Union counterparts when they come to Spain and governments are looking for ways to manage appropriately so we can have that coexistence, or ‘convivencia’, that everybody wants to see.

From our perspective, British tourists who come here are the guests, and so from the embassy and consulate our job is to understand what policies may be in place and to be as respectful as we possibly can, as you would if you were in anybody’s house as a guest.

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