Britain's Ambassador to Madrid, Simon Manley, hosted a small dinner for British correspondents at his residence last Tuesday—to which The Spain Report was invited—to talk about the first royal state visit to the UK by a Spanish monarch since 1986. The Spanish government has also been briefing on the trip. King Felipe and Queen Letizia will arrive at Luton airport on Tuesday and begin three days of majestic speeches, dinners, visits and ceremonial affairs on Wednesday morning. The themes the British government is promoting are education, trade and science. Splendorous will be the back drops, delicious the fare and we may hope for some originality and wit in the royal addresses. The British establishment en masse will be in attendance and Spain's entourage will include half a dozen of the country's biggest businessmen, including the chairmen (and one chairwoman) of Iberdrola (electricity), Telefónica (telecoms), Santander (banking), Sabadell (banking), Inditex (retail, clothing) and Ferrovial (construction, services). King Felipe will reportedly tell British MPs in Parliament that "a solution" is needed for Gibraltar. Embassy staff have spent weeks meticulously preparing the timings, venues, activities and symbolism.
While the governments push the state visit, readers—and this was true for all of the hacks present at the dinner—only want to know more about one thing: Brexit.
The efforts, precision and readiness to receive royalty stand in stark contrast to the current state of the exit negotiations, which is the real cause for concern for hundreds of thousands of British and Spanish expats in both countries. No Brexit-related announcements are scheduled for the royal visit. One year after the referendum was held, no substantial, specific progress appears to have been made that will assuage the fears of those citizens, residents and taxpayers. Young professionals, mums and dads trying to bring up children, small business owners, or pensioners—who believed their life's work to be over—need to know what exactly the plan is, when it will begin and what specific changes it will involve. What do they need to do to make sure their lives continue to be as prosperous as they had been promised? Will it end up as a bit more paperwork or are more substantial life-changing alterations on the table? One year has passed since the vote to leave but only 1.5 years remain before the actual exit date in March 2019, following Theresa May's activation of Article 50 this spring. Thousands of real-life situations and problems need to be worked out before then.
In an article in The Guardian on Sunday evening, Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's Brexit negotiator, rejected the British government's offer to EU citizens as "a damp squib", contrary even to "the Vote Leave manifesto, which promised to treat EU citizens 'no less favourably than they are at present'". He said acquired rights for all EU citizens should be protected for life and may not be retroactively quashed, and also rejected any idea of extending the March 2019 final Brexit deadline due to the proximity of the May 2019 European elections: "That is simply unthinkable". In public at least, EU officials appear to be more concerned about protecting British citizens' rights post-Brexit than Downing Street does. The Spain Report understands no specific signals have been received from either Spain or the EU regarding London's "hopes and expectations" that a deal will eventually be done, although "hopes and expectations" that things will continue more or less as they are is at least a step removed from the hard or hooligan Brexit options that seemed to be the focus during the spring. Furthermore, it is in Brussels's interest to make an example out of Britain, lest Greece or France or anyone else come to believe a country may have its Euro-cake and eat it, may enjoy the benefits of membership without the onerous obligations.
Hopes and expectations are not good enough, one year after the referendum and with only 1.5 years to go. Official aspirations will not solve the expat healthcare problem, or the problems British pensioners face due to the fall in the value of the pound, or the bureaucratic nightmare Spanish families in the UK face to try to achieve "settled" status, should that option perhaps come to fruition. Roving multi-national euro-professionals are in limbo. There has been no word on dual nationality for long-term British residents in Spain. Companies face a separate set of legal and accounting challenges, an extra level of Brexit hell. Large multinationals with fixed establishments in one or the other country will perhaps find it slightly easier, but those enterprises whose supply chains depend on imports and exports to and from the UK will have to decide how to adapt and what to do with prices. Car parts manufacturers and supermarkets, for example, will be affected in this way. What will the thousands of Spaniards who cross the border every day to work in Gibraltar do? There are, so far, no specific answers to any of these problems.
The British Ambassador in Madrid is aware of all of these problems, and does talk to expats as he travels round Spain on his duties. London is the problem. If the British government and its European counterparts put the same effort into planning for the consequences of Brexit as they have done for the diligent preparation of King Felipe's state visit to the UK, 18 months might—just—be enough time to ensure catastrophic outcomes are avoided and some measures of prosperity are guaranteed for British and European citizens and companies. Governments come and governments go. Brexit is a historic, multi-generational, grand-strategic change of direction for both the United Kingdom and the European Union. Pipe dreams and suppositions are neither an immediate operational plan nor any kind of long-term strategy. If only there were a state-level, once-in-a-generation event coming up where two nations could commit to developing a constructive solution to the problems that are about to affect hundreds of thousands of their citizens. If only solving Brexit were the sole focus of that visit. But that's not what modern Kings and Queens are for.