Ambassador in Palma
D uring a busy round of visits in Palma yesterday, the new British Ambassador to Spain, Stephen J L Wright CMG, found time to talk with the Majorca Daily Bulletin's editor Jason Moore and columnist Ray Fleming. He also met the Chairman of the Serra Group, Pere Serra, the publishers of the Bulletin. at our offices in the Paseo Mallorca in Palma.
Q. What effect are you expecting David Beckham's presence in Madrid to have on the work of the Embassy?
A. Well, I look on it as a good thing because it adds another reason for our two countries to be interested in each other, it's another thing we have in common among many. You ask about a sporting personality but since I arrived here I have been impressed by the wide interest that Spanish people have in Britain today – it covers sport, yes, but many other things in the cultural field particularly.
Q. One of the UK TV news channels reported last week that you were upgrading your travel advice to holidaymakers following the recent bomb explosions on the mainland. Is that so?
A. No, our travel advice has always referred to the risk of ETA activities in Spain and warned people to be alert to possible incidents. Generally we say that this terrorism is not directed at British people but that there is inevitably a very small chance of their being involved. However it is not significant enough to be a reason not to travel to Spain. We have tried to give well–balanced advice.
Q. While on the travel theme, it was reported recently that UK passports are going to cost more, partly because of the new technologies being used to make them more secure – for instance eye identification was mentioned. Will Embassies such as yours have the equipment to produce such passports or will they all have to be processed in London in the future?
A. The changes you mention are some way down the road although there is pressure because of the general security situation, and particularly from the United States, to bring them into force as soon as possible. Once this happens all embassies will be able to issue passports in the same way they do at the moment.
Q. What about the reverse travel from Spain to Britain – for instance of nurses and doctors. Are they still being recruited here?
A. Yes, this project continues and what pleases me about it is that the majority of those who go to the National Health Service in Britain settle in quickly and enjoy the working conditions and the overall environment. They earn more than they would do here in Spain but we warn them that the cost of living in Britain is higher also.
Q. Your CV shows that until October 2002 you were Director–General of Defence and Intelligence Affairs in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. What do you think has been learnt from the current controversy in Britain over the Intelligence dossiers on Iraq published by the government? Do you think the general public expects too much of Intelligence material?
A. Britain has no track record of discussing Intelligence information in public so it is not surprising that the current debate is not very well focussed. My experience is that Intelligence can illuminate a subject like a flash of light while leaving much else in the dark. It has to be interpreted against a background of other information from many sources. But it is asking too much of it to answer otherwise unanswerable questions. In itself it does not provide the complete picture but has to be subjected to analysis and prediction.
Q. From your earlier experience at the British Embassy in Washington, do you think that the Americans are more open than the British in discussing Intelligence and similar confidential matters?
A. There is more open discussion in the United States but it is not necessarily planned. A lot of it is based on leaks from competing government departments and agencies which want to push their particular agenda. And the media gets hold of a lot of this kind of thing and brings it into the open. The American constitutional and governmental arrangements, with the separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branches, are different from ours and also contribute to this tendency to openness. In Britain such open discussion has been deprecated and in the past not much has been done. However, in the last twelve months an effort has been made to bring the fruits of intelligence into the public domain, especially in relation to Iraq. Remember, too, that in 2001/02 the Government published a document setting out the grounds for its position on Afghanistan after 9/11. These were both efforts to do something new, something that is quite difficult.
Q. Will the Gibraltar impasse between Britain and Spain ever be resolved?
A. It has been there for a very long time. The difficulties are well–known and have been endlessly discussed in the three places concerned, Gibraltar, Britain and Spain. There was some promising progress early last year but the informal referendum which was organised in Gibraltar and which showed almost total opposition to any accommodation with Spain was a significant event. The Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made a statement in the House of Commons in July last year which summarised the position and there has been no change since. How might things move forward? It is necessary for Spain in particular to make its intentions clearer to the people of Gibraltar who for 50 years suffered from blockades and other restrictions which have understandably made them wary of closer involvement with Spain. They need reassurance from Spain. At the same time, the UK has to encourage Gibraltar to develop further its economic resources, a task that would be helped if there were good relations with Spain. Britain's job is to help Gibraltar to see the wider and more prosperous future it could have and to build bridges. All this will need quite a lot of people for quite a long time.
Q. Since Britain and Spain are fellow–members of the European Union, might it not be possible for the European Union itself to take an active role in solving the Gibraltar issue?
A. Well, what is the European Union? It is an association of sovereign states and it is unlikely that the European Commission or the Parliament would want to take an initiative that did not have the full agreement of the countries involved. If they made some progress perhaps the EU could assist in helping it along. But first there has to be agreement among Britain, Spain and Gibraltar.
Q. Are British hooligans any threat to Anglo/Spanish relations? Does the subject come up?
A. Yes, it is inevitable that a few people will misbehave and even get involved in criminal activities. But it is my impression that the Spanish authorities treat any of our visitors who get into trouble very well, with firmness and respect.
Q. What about residents? Do they give you any trouble?
A. In general, no, and it is encouraging to see the tendency for British residents to become involved in local affairs here, including politics. But there is one problem, especially among older residents who have not bothered to get all their papers in order, for instance to register as residents with the Consulate and the local authorities. Unfortunately, if a partner dies and they fall sick themselves they may find that they are not legally entitled to social service assistance from either Spain or Britain and because they have not done the necessary simple paperwork they fall in a hole between the two systems. Again, I am impressed by how sympathetically such cases are handled by the Spanish authorities but, of course, they have their own rules to follow.
Q. Before this interview you met with Jaume Matas, the President of the local Government. What message did you give to him?
A. That the Balearics are very important to Britain. Spain is the largest holiday destination in the world for the British and the Balearics is the largest single destination in Spain. I told him that I want our citizens to be good citizens of Spain also.


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