Madrid: There are hopes among Brexit fanatics that Spain can be separated from other more hardline EU nations as the different Brexit negotiations unfold. Spain runs a healthy trade surplus with Britain, is the most popular EU destination for British holidaymakers and has several hundred thousand expats living full- or part-time in the country. So, runs the Brexit argument, Spain will seek its own deal with the UK as Albion again plays its perfidious game of divide and rule. 

Talking to Spanish politicians, government officials and European policy specialists in Madrid, there was no evidence to suggest that Spain will differ much in its approach to Brexit from other European nations. If anything, Britain leaving the EU means that Spain now becomes one of the bloc’s big four – after Germany, France and Italy. 

Francois Hollande recently told the Spanish they were now one of the EU’s big players. Spain will also be attending an informal Brexit summit with Germany, France and Italy in Versailles on Monday –  cementing its status as one of the big boys. French flattery goes down better than Brexit bluster. 

Spain exports 15 times as much to France, Germany, Portugal, Italy and Benelux as it does to Britain. As nice as the UK market is for Spain, the EU 27 market is far more profitable.

Madrid will tuck in quietly behind Germany on the Article 50 negotiations. Once those are concluded Spain will stay in the centre of the pack on whatever future negotiations take place on trade access.

The expat question

There are 300,000 Brits who declare themselves to be permanently resident in Spain. UK embassy officials and Spanish experts reckon there could be several hundred thousand other Brits who own a property in Spain and spend part or most of the year in the country. There are an estimated 200,000 Spaniards living full- or part-time in Britain. Identifying, listing, and giving documents to everyone is a herculean task.

The Spanish love British universities and recognise the importance of English, while the prime minister sends his children to a British Council school. But they are a proud people and, if Theresa May brings in measures insisting that Spaniards coming to live in the UK must have special visas, there will be reciprocal moves from Spain. For example, every non-EU citizen in Spain has to pass a driving test – which includes a written test in Spanish. Given the language ability of many UK expats, some may find this a challenge.

The Rock in a hard place

Above all there is the problem of Gibraltar. As Europe minister, I helped negotiate a kind of peace deal in Madrid that allows direct flights to Gibraltar even though the airport landing strip is clearly in Spanish not British territory. If the UK leaves the EU Open Skies and other EU aviation agreements, there will have to be a bilateral deal between the UK and Spain on access to Gibraltar. The Spanish foreign minister makes clear that the issue of joint sovereignty will be on the agenda. This is unacceptable to Gibraltarians and British MPs but, if hard Brexit is what London seeks, it will be very hard indeed for the Rock.         

In short, the idea that Spain is on the UK side of the table in any Brexit negotiations is far from the truth. Spain is part of the EU 27. Thirty years ago Spain joined the EU. If Brexit Britain opts for a full amputation from Europe the three decades of close amistad between Britain and Spain – the warmest relations for centuries – may soon belong to history.

by Denis MacShane | 02.03.2017

Denis MacShane is the former Minister for Europe. He is author of Brexit: How Britain Left Europe (IB Tauris)

Edited by Hugo Dixon

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