The news comes as a number of European countries close their borders to the UK as it battles a virulent new strain of Covid-19
A number of British expats were denied entry to Spain after arriving in Barcelona on a British Airways flight from London Heathrow on the 2nd of January. The group of about ten people were stopped at the border by Spanish police and were later returned to the UK.
Whilst those affected were all in possession of green residency certificates, which were still valid according to the Spanish government, a number of expats were also prevented from boarding a British Airways/Iberia flight from Heathrow to Madrid on the same day. Each had also tested negative for Covid-19.
The problems came after the British government managed to strike a historic trade agreement with the European Union before the transition period officially ended on the 1st of January. The apparent uncertainty among airline staff and border police in Spain regarding rights of residence post-Brexit may have been exacerbated by concerns around Covid-19, with Spain having taken the step of banning all arrivals from the UK, except for its own nationals and UK citizens with residency rights.
Italy and Germany too
Spain’s flag carrier airline, Iberia, issued a statement that revealed that it had been told by Spanish border police that registration as a European citizen was no longer considered to be a valid document to prove legal residency in Spain for British citizens. The following day the airline says that it received clarification from border police that the document was in fact valid for use unless it had expired.
After an intervention by the British Embassy, the Spanish Embassy in London issued a statement via its Twitter account clarifying that, in addition to the new post-Brexit residence TIE card (photo-ID card), green certificates are also a valid proof of permanent residency.
The hiccup comes amid reports that returning expats with valid residency documents were also denied entry to other European countries, including Italy and Germany. Travellers to Berlin and Pisa faced problems, with some 30 people prevented from boarding a flight to the latter by Ryanair staff. Several British travellers also took to social media to claim that they had been unable to return to Germany.
One of those prevented from flying to Pisa was Dr Caitlin Procter, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence. She was prevented from boarding the flight by airline staff, who told her that she must have possession of an Italian passport or a new photo-ID residency card, despite the Italian government previously confirming that it would recognise green residency cards.
Dr Procter laid the blame squarely at the door of Brexit, telling the Telegraph: “I followed all the rules, and it’s ridiculous that airlines somehow have the authority to decide who can travel. It’s a rude wake-up to Brexit.” Whilst some blame Brexit, the Spanish government issued a clearly written document detailing residency rights within Spain for UK nationals. It shows that under the Withdrawal Agreement, ‘UK nationals who were residing in Spain before 31st December 2020 have obtained the rights set out in the Withdrawal Agreement’. It is regrettable that airlines and border police were apparently operating in ignorance of the law after 31st December.
It remains to be seen whether any further misconceptions of a similar scale will arise, but the news is perhaps an early indicator that the adjustment to the United Kingdom’s new status as an independent ‘third country’ to the EU may not be an entirely smooth one for expat travellers wishing to return home from the UK. To date, there have been no reports of EU citizens residing in the United Kingdom being denied entry to the country.