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Spanish royals on state visit to UK, with Brexit issues unavoidable

The king and queen of Spain start a state visit to the UK on Wednesday in which the two royal families will seek to play down simmering rows over a string of post-Brexit issues between the two countries.

The three-day visit by King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia is the first to the UK by the Spanish royal family since 1986, and was agreed before the Brexit referendum result. It was then deferred twice, first due to the extended negotiations in Spain in March 2016 to form a new government, then by a deferral by Britain due to Theresa May’s decision to call a general election.

Spanish politicians, including the foreign minister Alfonso Dastis, are accompanying the king and queen.

It is being argued that talks on post-Brexit rights for 300,000 UK citizens in Spain and Spanish nationals in the UK – including 3,000 scientists working in higher education – are being conducted at the EU level in Brussels, and therefore need not be raised at length during the state visit. But the Gibraltar dispute, a roadblock in Anglo-Spanish relations further complicated by Brexit, will be unavoidable. Its status is largely a bilateral issue, and Felipe has previously described the British claim to the Rock as an historical anachronism.

Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picardo, has not been asked to any of the talks or major evening dinners by the UK government. In a speech this week in Malaga, he claimed that the Spanish government would try to insert a clause into any future UK-EU agreement on working rights so that it would not apply to EU citizens working in Gibraltar.

The UK ambassador to Spain, Simon Manley, said ahead of the visit: “We are not going to negotiate a solution that is against the interest of the people of Gibraltar. Our position has been very clear. The important thing is to talk about the practical issues and interests we all have in common.” He said the priority was to safeguard the working rights of the approximately 7,000 Spaniards who make the daily crossing to work in Gibraltar.

The vast majority of Gibraltarians voted to remain, fearing a loss of access to the EU if there was a vote for Brexit. In March, the issue shot up the list of Brexit priorities when it appeared Brussels had endorsed the idea that no EU-UK Brexit deal could apply in Gibraltar without the agreement of the Spanish and British governments.

The Spanish government has insisted it will not stop a wider Brexit deal over Gibraltar, which it regards primarily as bilateral issue, but it has a bargaining card it can play.

During the state visit, the UK government will also be reluctant to be drawn into the issue of the Catalan independence referendum to be held in October. The Catalonian government has urged Madrid to follow the example set by the UK government, who granted Scotland an official and binding referendum on secession in 2014.

British ministers are likely to argue that the Spanish constitution makes no provision for such a referendum, as Spain is a unitary state. But if there is a vote for secession, nationalists in Scotland and Wales will back calls for the UK to recognise the result. The UK’s Labour Party has yet to set out a position.

The Spanish royals will be formally greeted by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on Horse Guards Parade on Wednesday before attending a state banquet on Wednesday evening.

Prince Harry, in his first involvement in a state visit, will take the royal couple around Westminster Abbey before the Spanish king addresses both parliaments. He will meet Theresa May accompanied by his ministers for a lunch at Downing Street on Thursday. On Friday Felipe is due to visit Oxford University where the royal couple will be greeted by the strongly anti-Brexit vice-chancellor Lord Patten.

In their eagerness to launch a new era in Anglo-Spanish relations, the British government is likely to want to highlight the flourishing trade and business relations between the two countries. The UK is the number one destination for overseas Spanish investment, reaching an accumulated 82.5bn euros by the end of 2015.

The Spanish ambassador to the UK, Carlos Bastarreche, was plucked back from the private sector to take up his posting in London this Spring, partly because of his extensive diplomatic experience at the EU.