DURING the visit to Palma of Stephen Wright, the British Ambassador in Madrid, the Majorca Daily Bulletin had the opportunity of putting questions to him on a wide range of subjects including: the future of the UK Consulate in Palma.....the growing British presence in Spain.....Embassy advice on settling in here ...how many British–owned properties are there in Spain....relations with the new Spanish government....positive signs on Gibraltar.... prospects for “cold weather” payments for pensioners... why Britons were unable to vote in the Spanish referendum on the EU Constitution.
JASON MOORE and RAY FLEMING put the questions. l Bulletin: Changes are coming at the British Consulate in Palma. The Consul will not be a Diplomatic Service officer in future? Why? l Ambassador: “It's the result of changes in the Diplomatic Service to rebalance representation in Europe in order to strengthen the UK's presence in other parts of the world where we have been under–represented in the past. But the point to emphasize is that I'm confident we can manage the change in such a way as to ensure that the level of service we provide in the Consulate in Palma will continue as before and that the customers of the Consulate and its local contacts will notice no difference. We have experiencce of managing change at our Consulates in Spain with Consuls who are brought in on contract after experience in other parts of the Foreign Service, and it works very well.” l So when Mike Banham (the present Consul) moves on, have you any idea of who will succeed him? l “We haven't started the recruitment process yet because we're not trying to push Mike out of the door any sooner than he has to go and he has several more months in the job. We will have a proper recruitment process with an advertised vacancy and a proper job description.” l Is it an important saving, doing it this way? l “It's more that the Diplomatic Service, of which Mike is a member, is under budgetary pressure and in particular we need to reduce the number of full–time established members of the Service. That means that when retirements come along, as in the case of Mike, we need to look at whether we can do the job in another more economical way. And experience shows that it's a very satisfactory way of advertising Consul posts in Spain to a wider pool of potential recruits. We now have enough experience in other parts of Spain to know that even in a post as important as Palma we can continue to provide a good level of service. I would like your readers to know that the Consulate in Palma will continue to function as it's functioning now and will continue to provide the same level of service.” l I think that most people understand this but the greatest concern is that some loss of face is involved. l “Well, we have assured the Spanish government that there should be no difference in the level of service provided, so there isn't a question of loss of face. We're just updating our way of filling jobs.” l But when you see the way Spain is going in terms of devolution of responsibilities from Madrid, doesn't that argue that Consulates will actually have a broader range of responsibilities in the future? l “Certainly, the amount of devolution in Spain is very great. We want our Consulates to maintain contact with the governments of the autonomous regions and the local authorities and so on, but the main conclusion that I draw from the strong tendency to devolution is that I and my colleagues in the Embassy in Madrid need to make sure that we know the regional governments as well and travel a lot because if it's a question of developing political relationships this is best done by the Ambassador and by his trained senior diplomatic officers in the Embassy. The role of the Consulates is principally to look after the interests of the British communities and the travelling British public.” l The size of the British expatriate community in Spain seems to be growing. What advice would you give to people who are moving to Spain to work? l “For various reasons i of devolution of responsibilities from Madrid, doesn't that argue that Consulates will actually have a broader range of responsibilities in the future? l “Certainly, the amount of devolution in Spain is very great. We want our Consulates to maintain contact with the governments of the autonomous regions and the local authorities and so on, but the main conclusion that I draw from the strong tendency to devolution is that I and my colleagues in the Embassy in Madrid need to make sure that we know the regional governments as well and travel a lot because if it's a question of developing political relationships this is best done by the Ambassador and by his trained senior diplomatic officers in the Embassy. The role of the Consulates is principally to look after the interests of the British communities and the travelling British public.” l The size of the British expatriate community in Spain seems to be growing. What advice would you give to people who are moving to Spain to work? l “For various reasons it's difficult to get hold of the figures, but I share your impression that the British resident and partially–resident community in Spain is diversifying and significant numbers of people of working age with families are coming here. This is very positive because the children go to school, the families become involved in society, they're integrated, they pay taxes in Spain perhaps, and it's a richer kind of integration into Spanish society than simply retired people who want to live a more peaceful, untrammelled, uncomplicated sort of life. You asked about advice. British people coming here should expect to be good citizens of Spain as well as of the UK, register themselves with the community in which they live to get their entitlement to health and education services and to ensure they have the opportunity to vote. They should register their vehicles locally and take out Spanish insurance on them. When buying property or a business they should take all the precautions they would take if they were in the UK. They need the services of a professional, qualified lawyer and the Consulates have a list of lawyers who have knowledge of British conditions and practices.” l Do you think there's a need that before people come to settle in Spain they should learn the language? l “I think it's highly desirable. In order to settle well it's highly desirable that people should have some knowledge of Spanish so that they can settle comfortably into society here. As to other things, on our web site there's lots of good advice and I would advise anyone thinking about coming here to check with the British Embassy website: wwwukinspain.com.” · Going back to the numbers coming here. You haven't noticed any dramatic rise in the number of people registering with Consulates? l “No. People are not required to register when they come or when they leave. I don't think that the number of people registered at a Consulate is an indicator of anything that's going on out there in the market. The figure I use, although I have absolutely no idea of its reliability, is that we estimate there are more than, and I don't know how many more than, 500'000 British property owners in Spain. That doesn't mean they are necessarily resident. The figure could cover full–time to very occasional residents and I've seen higher estimates up to 750'000. Given the level of demand which exists for purchase of property I'm sure the numbers are still increasing.” l So it's almost two per cent of the Spanish population? l “Half–a–million of 44 million. That's er...I can't do the maths, but that's what it is. Then on top of that the number of British visitors to Spain is about 16 million a year which makes Spain our number one tourist destination and makes Britain, at least in recent years, the number one source of tourists for Spain. It varies, sometimes it's Germany but it's always one or the other.” l How would you describe the state of relations between Britain and Spain at the moment? l “Very good. Since the new Socialist government took office about a year ago we in the Embassy have been progressively developing areas of collaboration between the two governments where there is a shared interest. For example, collaboration against international terrorism which was the first and a top priority for the incoming government for obvious reasons, policies on judicial and criminal matters because there's a lot of concern about the internationalising of organised crime, drug smuggling, immigration and asylum policies. The new government has taken initiatives that are of interest to us, such as in the field of climate change which is a major priority of the British government, and in the field of international development where they're increasing the budget. Spain is also playing a full part in international affairs and, in particular, has made some important commitments to the international effort in Afghanistan, which is also important to us. We're collaborating there both at the military and political levels. Those are just examples of areas of activity which we have developed over the last years. As you may know, the UK has the presidency of the European Union in the second half of this year and that will serve to intensify relations between ministers in the two governments. All that, of course, subject to the thought that we are about to have a UK election and I can't predict whether there will be changes as a result of that or not. l I must say, I felt slightly sorry for you when you were recently summoned twice in one day, was it, by the Spanish Foreign Minister over the nuclear submarine in Gibraltar. Does the Spanish government understand that Britain can send nuclear submarines to Gibraltar because it's sovereign territory and that protests are part of a bit of a charade that has to be done, or is it a serious protest which Britain takes seriously and thinks about twice before it lets another nuclear submarine go to the Rock? l “The Spanish government understands that Britain has the right to send submarines or other naval vessels into Gibraltar and knows that Britain needs to continue to exercise that right for international operational reasons, and that we will continue to do so. We have made that very clear. It's understandable, and the British government understands, that Spanish public opinion and the Spanish government is particularly sensitive about nuclear submarines after the Tireless repair programme in 2001–2 which left a great deal of sensitivity about nuclear submarines in particular. We try to manage that as best we can, subject to the operational requirements that nuclear submarines will from time to time need to visit Gibraltar. When there is technical information to pass to the Spanish government we do so. l Of all the ambassadors in Madrid are you the one who gets summoned the most to the Foreign Ministry? l “I don't know, but we do have a special element in our relations which arises from Gibraltar. In general, and I should have listed this in my catalogue of areas of collaboration, the new Spanish government has taken a policy attitude initiative towards Gibraltar, in particular towards the inclusion of the Gibraltarian representative in debate about the future which is very positive. We are building up a very positve three–sided forum for discussion of the full range of issues relating to Gibraltar. That's a process which will move gradually. Everybody knows that there are sensitivities on all sides it's not something to rush at. But it's a positive step that the Spanish government and the British government agreed last October.” l Many older residents here feel that they are unfairly treated by the British government because beyond their pensions they don't have access to the various supplementary benefits available to pensioners in Britain, even the cold weather payments. Do you think that now we're all in Europe these benefits could be extended to pensioners living outside the UK? Is the British government looking at this? l “I don't believe so. No. The entitlements to pensions are pretty well laid down and your pension is payable anywhere in the European Union but other benefits are a matter of what's available from the local authorities. It's not something that the present British government is looking to change.” l How do you think it could have come about that the Spanish referendum on the European Constitution was held without allowing other European citizens resident in Spain and on the electoral roll, to take part in it? l “As you know, other European citizens living in Spain can take part in local and European Parliament elections, which are governed by European legislation, but the Spanish government did not make provision for those citizens to vote in the referendum which was covered by national legislation.” l They could have done so? l “Yes, the government could have extended the vote to other nationalities but they chose not to do so.” l Was this something they were aware of as a kind of little sore that was irrit