By Graham Salter
Reassuring words about Anglo-Spanish relations from Our Man in Madrid.
Simon Manley is the British Ambassador to Spain. On Friday he came back to his alma mater, Magdalen College, to give a talk in the Madariaga Series entitled “UK and Spain: building a bilateral relationship for post-Brexit Europe.” Unsurprisingly, given the topicality of his subject, the Auditorium was full. And equally unsurprisingly, the Ambassador’s tone was essentially reassuring.
Looking suave and unflappable, Mr Manley reminded us that Britain and Spain are inextricably linked and profoundly inter-dependent. 300,000 Britons live in Spain, and 130,000 Spaniards are in the UK ; 9,500 undergraduates from Spain are in British Universities, and 55,000 Spanish pupils are in British schools; there are more flights between Spain and the UK than between Canada and the USA; and our two languages, English and Spanish, are seen by many as the two great global tongues of the 21st century.
Turning to counter-terrorism and police co-operation, the Ambassador highlighted the success of Operación Captura, where the Spanish and the British police, often aided by the general public, work together to capture British fugitive criminals. The idea that British crooks can escape justice on the Costas, and spend their ill-gotten gains in the sunshine is clearly now a myth.
Another myth which he demolished was the idea that Spain is economically one of the sick men of Europe. The ambassador did not downplay the seriousness of youth unemployment there, but pointed out that Spain has a very sizeable trade surplus, and invests more in the UK than in any other European country. Heathrow Airport is now run by Ferrovial, Luton Airport by AENA, and Scottish Power by Iberdrola. Banco Sabadell owns TSB, while Santander, of course, has taken over Abbey National. Paradoxically, the Spanish economy seems to have “roared ahead” during a year when there has been no party in government in Madrid, possibly because so much of the decision-making in Spain is now devolved to the autonomous regions. Whatever the reason, Spain’s is now the fastest-growing economy in Europe.
And post-Brexit? Mr Manley emphasised the need to keep working at our bi-lateral relationship with Spain. He was committed to protecting the rights of expatriate Britons in Spain, and Spanish people living in the UK. Indeed, one day after the UK Referendum he had produced a short video to reassure British expats about the continuity of their rights; within four days it had been seen by 700,000 people.
Similarly, the ambassador pledged to defend the interests of the citizens of Gibraltar, who voted overwhelmingly in favour of Britain remaining in the EU. It is vital for them that the border with Spain stays open, not least because 7,000 Spaniards cross into Gibraltar each day in order to work there. Needless to say, there was no change in the UK Government’s attitude to the issue of sovereignty regarding the Rock.
All in all, the message from our man in Madrid was “Don’t panic, but this vital bi-lateral relationship is one that we must consciously work at throughout the coming years.” In a year commemorating the deaths of Miguel Cervantes and William Shakespeare, it is good to remind ourselves that the complex and profound relationship between Britain and Spain is still worth nurturing.