Simon Manley, the British ambassador to Spain, clearly stated this morning that there will be nothing more important in Brexit negotiations than the rights of citizens. He was referring not just to Britons living in Spain and other European Union countries but also to the three million EU citizens currently resident in the UK.
Manley was speaking to an audience at the newly opened Meliá Palma Bay Hotel, part of the Palacio de Congresos convention centre complex. The Bulletin's breakfast with the ambassador attracted other embassy officials, local politicians, businesspeople - Majorcan and British - as well as British residents in Majorca. With due ceremony, he and other dignitaries were greeted by a Scottish bagpiper.
The ambassador started by saying that he was proud to be back in Majorca, an island so beloved by some many Britons, and by immediately addressing the key issues of the moment - Brexit, the negotiations for the exit and the relationship with the EU post-Brexit.
He was unequivocal in observing that the UK is a European country and always will be. He emphasised the common interests and values and a history forged on the battlefields of war. "We are not leaving Europe, we are leaving the European Union." As an example of ongoing commitments to European values, security and defence, he cited the example of British troops having been deployed to Estonia and Poland in response to aggression (from Russia).
"Liberty, democracy, human rights," these are interests of the UK and of Europe. "And these values are as important as ever."
Manley moved on to consider an issue of fundamental importance to the business sector, both Spanish and British. He highlighted the major investments made by Spanish companies in the UK - in areas such as banking, transport and energy - and insisted that the UK has and will have an ongoing commitment to free trade. "There is no UK protectionism," he stated, in establishing that in a post-Brexit scenario there will be no barriers to trade or to businesses (at least where the UK will be concerned).
The agreement to be sought from Brexit, he said, will be "ambitious", and one of the principles of this agreement will be the deepest possible free trade. He referred to the unique nature of the negotiations and to laws which are common to the UK and other EU member states. These are laws "that we respect".
Although the UK will be leaving the EU, he insisted that the UK wants to see a strong and successful post-Brexit EU. "This is in our interests." He again emphasised the priority of protecting citizens' rights and those of businesses, while acknowledging that relationships will be different. But the UK will still be "a neighbour and the European Union's best friend".
There are few countries in the EU, he observed, where the relationship with the UK is stronger than with Spain. The ambassador said that he was proud "to represent my Queen (whose birthday was mentioned) and my country" in promoting this relationship.
Among the audience were businesspeople whose interests lie firmly with tourism. Manley pointed out that almost eighteen million UK tourists came to Spain in 2016 and that already this year the figure has risen by 15%. This will continue to rise, he believed, so long as it remains easy to travel.
On his role, he said that as ambassador he will act in supporting the negotiations with Brussels and alluded to bilateral relationships being formed on "human, cultural and commercial" bases. With reference once more to the relationship between the UK and Spain and to the countries' common interests, he referred to "two great nations that look to the outside world".
Following the speech, the ambassador took questions from the audience. On passports, as in a Briton applying for Spanish nationality/passport but keeping a UK passport, he noted that there are differences in attitude between the UK and Spain in this regard. However, he considered that the best response to such a question and the best way to resolve anxieties will be to get the right deal that will be reciprocal with the 27 member states: a deal "that respects all current rights in order to ensure legal continuity".
Regarding possible taxes on export in the future, Manley conceded that he was not in a position to give a specific answer. Instead, he reiterated the principle of free trade and of no barriers, and so therefore there not being taxes. It will be important, he concluded, to "preserve the vibrancy of economic ties that we have at present".
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