ONE of the biggest issues currently facing British expats resident in Spain or those hoping to relocate here is the failure between the UK and Spain to come to a bilateral agreement over driving licence recognition for British residents in Spain who still have UK issued licences.
The Olive Press has been highlighting the issue affecting our readers across Spain and is determined to highlight their experiences in the hope of adding pressure on the authorities to make it a priority to resolve the problem.
Here we attempt to explain in depth what the situation is, how we got here and how people are affected.
Who can and can’t drive in Spain?
Spain has a law that requires those foreign citizens who live here permanently to swap their driving licence for a Spanish-issued one within six months of being resident.
This rule has been in place for decades although many Brits living here didn’t follow the law and never swapped their licences despite being legally required to do so.
Swapping is theoretically a relatively easy process for those with an EU-issued driving licence, and this was the case for Brits living in Spain until Brexit changed everything.
The process involves making a cita previa at the local DGT office, turning up with a valid licence, a filled-in form, a residency document, and a passport.
Applicants were also required to present a certificate to show that the driver has passed a very simple medical check carried out at authorised testing centres that checked eye-sight and reflexes.
Plus a receipt of payment for the application made at an approved bank is required.
The application was submitted with a check made by the DGT together with the issuing authorities in the country where the licence was issued – which for Brits was the DVLA.
If the check came back clear, then a Spanish driving licence was either ready for collection or mailed out anytime between three weeks and three months from the original appointment.
This is still the process for swapping a driving licence for those who come from a country within the EU zone.
Unfortunately this is no longer the process for Brits living in Spain since the UK left the European Union as a result of the Brexit referendum.
However Brits are, like every other foreign resident, still required by law to have a Spanish licence if they wish to drive legally after six months of being resident in Spain.
Those visiting Spain from the UK, or anywhere outside the EU zone, are allowed to drive a car in Spain for a period up to six months so this rule does not affect holidaymakers and only applies to those with residency in Spain.
What happened with Brexit?
As mentioned above, everything changed for Brits with the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
The UK officially left the European Union on January 31 2020, but that didn’t mean things changed overnight.
A Withdrawal Agreement was struck between the UK and member states which established a transition period that ran until December 31 2020.
It was also agreed that any Brit who was resident in an EU country before this date would be able to enjoy the same rights they had to live and work in their adopted EU country.
In Spain that meant that those who were resident here before December 31 2020 would still be able to swap their driving licences using the old process.
However, because of conditions caused by Covid – which saw DGT offices closed for months during the pandemic – combined with a last minute rush as thousands of Brits tried to regularise their situation – it became impossible for many people to complete the process before the deadline.
Therefore Spain came up with an interim plan.
Those who lived in Spain before the Brexit deadline and had their rights covered under the withdrawal agreement had to register their intent to change their driving licence before December 30. They could do this by phoning a dedicated phone line and giving their information.
Spain said this was to allow those who registered intent before the deadline to be given a six month grace period to secure the appointment and make the change before June 30 2021.
Because of the huge numbers applying and because of the continuing problems securing appointments this grace period was extended first until the end of October 2021, and then a further three times until finally Spain refused any further extensions.
This meant that from May 1 those Brits who had been living in Spain longer than six months were no longer legally allowed to drive on a British licence.
This applies even to those who had lodged their intent to exchange before the December 2020 deadline but had not yet done so as well as those who had been resident but failed to register intent, along with anyone who arrived after Brexit.
During all this time Spain and Britain have been ‘in negotiations’ for a permanent solution to the issue that would allow British residents to easily swap their licences for Spanish ones in the same way that they could in the pre-Brexit era.
The vast majority of EU countries have been able to reach a deal with the United Kingdom over the recognition and easy exchange of driving licences post-Brexit, but the bilateral deal with Spain has not been forthcoming.
For weeks and weeks we have been given regular updates by the British Ambassador who said that negotiations are progressing and an agreement is likely to be struck in the near future.
So it was a major blow when the Spanish authorities refused to prolong the extension leaving hundreds if not thousands of Brits in limbo.
Those Brits are now left unable to drive legally and with the only option of taking a Spanish driving test or waiting for who-knows-how-long until an agreement is made in the hope that it means an easy exchange will be possible.
What about this agreement?
It is unclear yet if any future agreement would benefit just those British residents who are protected under the Withdrawal Agreement or will include UK licence holders who moved to Spain to become resident after Brexit came into force on January 1st 2021.
We don’t know exactly what is on the cards, as the Ambassador keeps reminding us.
“Unfortunately, I simply can’t go into lots of detail or give a running commentary of what is an ongoing negotiation,” Hugh Elliott said in the latest update on June 2.
But he does remain committed to striking a deal and remains optimistic that it will happen soon. “I assure you we are working on this everyday. We are genuinely making progress,” he said
He did have one piece of good news that “an agreement had been reached on a clause that will permit everyone back on the road from the moment an agreement is signed for a period of up to six months to allow people time to once again try and exchange their licences.”
He declined to give an exact time frame of when an agreement might be signed but said he expected it to take a matter of ‘weeks rather than months.’
There have been rumours that part of the reason an agreement has been so elusive is that the UK government has refused to allow the sharing of passenger details from the DVLA with its Spanish counterpart, the DGT.
Data sharing would allow Spain to more effectively pursue those who speed and commit other offences after they have left Spain and would allow for the automatic issuing of fines for offences committed by British drivers.
However, this is currently not the case in any other agreement between the UK and an EU country, which, it has been alleged, is why the UK has refused.
The Foreign Office – which is leading negotiations on the British side – denied the data sharing issue was a sticking point to the Olive Press.
Without a bilateral deal on driving licences, the UK will continue to be third country for the recognition and exchange of licences. Under the current rules most non-EU driving licence holders have six months from their arrival in Spain to use their foreign licences before they are required to change them for a Spanish one. (although some need an international driving permit from the very beginning).
There are no figures on exactly how many Brits resident in Spain are waiting to exchange their driving licences. But of the more than 407,000 Brits now officially registered as residents it is a minority.
However for many of the hundreds or possibly thousands of those unable to legally drive, the issue has been devastating.
There have been reports of Brits living in rural areas without public transport who are now stranded and no longer able to access shops or medical services.
Many readers have written in the Olive Press to share their plight describing how they are isolated and now reliant on the kindness of neighbours or left having to fork out huge expense for taxis.
There are those who are nervous about going through the Spanish driving test as they fear their Spanish skills aren’t adequate.
Others who have attempted to enrole in Spanish driving licences, a necessary requirement before taking the test have found there are long delays for lessons and it could be months before they can take the practical test.
Not everyone is sympathetic to those who have been left in limbo in the driving licence debacle.
Dozens of comments on social media posts about the issue, most significantly beneath the regular updates on the Brits in Spain Facebook page run by the Embassy, point out that there was plenty of time and endless warnings about the need to exchange licences ahead of the Brexit deadline.
Some express a definite lack of sympathy for anyone who failed to do so, accusing them of either holding a ‘colonialist attitude’ for living in Spain but refusing to abide by the local rules, or of putting their head in the sand and ignoring the warnings.
And while it is true that it has always been a legal obligation to do the licence exchange, many thousands of people hadn’t fulfilled that obligation and the last minute rush to do so overloaded the system and meant many missed the deadline.
Moreover, we have heard of dozens of examples of those who attempted to follow instructions but were thwarted either by the system failing or through bad advice from ‘gestors’ and even local officials who ought to have known better.
Others had the misfortune of arriving in Spain after the Brexit deadline meaning the ‘registering intent’ was impossible.
The Olive Press is calling for an immediate return of the ability of Brits to swap their licence once they have settled here.
We have the support of councillors, business people and residents and believe that a failure to enact a change now will result in misery for thousands.
We are urging everyone to sign the parliamentary petition HERE to allow Brits back on the road.
We are continuing to publicise the stories of those for whom driving in Spain is absolutely essential and are demanding faster action from the government on both sides.
Get in touch if you have experience of this issue or something to say on the matter. Drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org