How and why I became Spanish

BAS editor William Chislett

In April 2016 I vowed in the Spanish newspaper ABC that if the UK left the EU, as a result of the referendum in June of that year, I would seek the nationality of the country where I have lived and worked for more than half of my life – Spain.

I am not given to breaking promises, particularly those made publicly, but I did not immediately apply for citizenship. I was put off by having to take the language and culture exams (what if I failed?), the cost of the process, having to get various documents translated and then waiting up to two years or more. Furthermore, the post-Brexit agreement between the UK and the EU did not change my legal status in Spain, and it was not even compulsory to turn my annoying EU residency permit (a piece of green paper with no photo and which is only valid when used with a passport) into the special post-Brexit residency card for Brits (with a photo and so the equivalent of an ID). So why bother?

In late 2020, three friends – the lawyer José Manuel Romero Moreno, the novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina and the sociology professor, Emilio Lamo de Espinosa, offered to be my padrinos and back my nationality via a faster and easier route known as Carta de Naturaleza. This route is based on a person’s particular circumstances: granting nationality this way is the prerogative of the Cabinet via a Royal Decree, signed by King Felipe VI.

I started the process in February 2021 at the Justice Ministry in Madrid, where I filled in the Carta de Naturaleza form and was told the requirements. My birth and marriage certificates had to be translated into Spanish by a traductor jurado and each one also needed an apostille which also had to be translated. The apostille is a seal regulated by the 1961 Hague Convention which facilitates and shortens the necessary procedure for the authentication of public documents.  This overcomes the need for diplomatic legalisation of these documents issued in a country that is a signatory of the Convention in order for them to have legal effect in another signatory country.

I was born in Oxford in 1951 and married in Gibraltar in 1974, when the frontier with Spain was closed (by Franco in 1969 and not re-opened until 1982, seven years after the dictator’s death). My fiancé and I travelled from Madrid to Gibraltar by overnight train to Algeciras and a ferry to Tangiers, and back the same way. Frustratingly, we could almost touch the Rock when the ferry left Algeciras.

I mailed the original of my birth certificate to the UK, by recorded delivery, and was able to apply for the apostille in Gibraltar electronically. The Registry Office there replied that, before this could be done, my marriage certificate needed to be renewed as the format of the certificate had changed.  When everything was done it would be mailed back to me. The Covid pandemic was in full swing and mail between Spain and Gibraltar is unreliable even in normal times. Fearing the new certificate with its apostille would never arrive or take weeks, I contacted a person in Madrid who is the Rock’s eyes and ears in Spain. He let me use his system: the new marriage certificate with its apostille was taken across the border by an employee of the Gibraltarian government and couriered to Madrid.

I also needed to provide to the Justice Ministry a copy of my certificado de empadronamiento, which is an official register of where I live, and a certificado de antecedents penales showing I had committed no crimes in Spain. Both were easy to obtain online.

I gradually delivered these documents to the Justice Ministry, along with testimonials from my three sponsors. By March 2021, I thought I had fulfilled all the documentary requirements – but this was not the case. I still needed proof that I had committed no crimes in the UK, a requirement I had not been told about. I was also told my application would move along much more quickly if I obtained the written support of a Spanish Minister or Secretary of State (no one below that rank).

The UK police certificate duly arrived, though I had to send it back to another department in the UK to get the apostille. Juan González-Barba, the Secretary of State for the European Union at the time, provided a letter of support.

April 2021 came and I thought I was home and dry, but the months went by and I heard nothing. I thought this was supposed to be the fast route, but, as the Spanish saying reminded me: Las cosas del palacio van despacio. One day I mentioned this to Joaquín Almunia, a former Socialist politician and prominent member of the European Commission. Joaquín made a few calls and my file was located on someone’s desk. More time went by. Joaquín cornered Pilar Llop, the Justice Minister, at the Socialist Party Congress in Valencia in October and asked what was happening. She took note and not long afterwards I was told my file would soon arrive at La Moncloa, the seat of government, for approval or not by the Cabinet.

Sure enough, on 16 November 2021 I was one of seven people to be given Spanish nationality. Among the others were Nélida Piñón, the Brazilian writer and winner of the 2005 Prince of Asturias for Literature; the Georgian chess professional Ana Matnadze; Fraidelyn Padua from the Dominican Repubic, whose mother was killed in Spain by her partner; and the Mexican writer and human rights activist Lydia Cacho, who fled to Spain after suffering death threats. I was in distinguished company.

The final step, without which I would not be granted a Spanish ID card or passport, was to swear allegiance before a magistrate to the Constitution and to King Felipe VI and renounce my British nationality. The latter is the object of much confusion and misunderstanding. The only people that are legally allowed to hold Spanish nationality and at the same time that of their country of origin are those from Latin America and citizens of Andorra, the Philippines, Equatorial Guinea, Portugal and Sefardic Jews. However, I did not have to surrender my passport, and I intend to use it if and when I travel to the UK. Alfonso Dastis, the Foreign Minister during the previous Popular Party government, had assured me there was no known case of someone with Spanish nationality having their other passport confiscated for continuing to use it. Whether I will be able to renew my British passport in 2028 when it expires, if I declare that I also have Spanish nationality, is not clear, but actually I don’t care.

The author with the magistrate to whom he swore allegiance to the 1978 Constitution

The document that the magistrate gave me enabled me to go to a police station and request the ID card and passport. They were given to me on the spot at a cost for both of €42, far quicker and less expensive than in the UK.  It was rather surreal to hand over my British passport for the title page to be photocopied at the police station and to be handed it back, with nothing said about whether it could still be used or not. UK citizens living in Europe have to obtain or renew their passports via Belfast, a process that takes up to 10 weeks and costs £106.

How do I feel about being Spanish? Was the process worth it? What advantages do I now have? As for the specific advantages, the only ones that I can see are being able to vote in Spanish general elections (when the UK was a EU member I could only vote in municipal, European and regional elections) and not having to stand in the non-EU queue when arriving at EU airports. My British wife has many more merits than I do, but she is not included in my Spanish nationality and so we will have to stand in separate queues. She can now apply for Spanish nationality as the wife of a Spaniard, but is not going to do so.

More than anything else, my decision to become Spanish is an emotional one. I lived through and reported on Spain’s 1975-78 transition to democracy for The Times, an unforgettable and seminal experience witnessing the country move from darkness to light. Spain got under my skin. After six years as the Financial Times correspondent in Mexico and two dull years in the FT’s head office in London, my wife and I, with two small sons, decided to return to Madrid for good in 1986. Neither of us liked living on an island, cut off, and not just geographically, from mainland Europe, nor the Little Englander mentality. We had kept our casa de campo in the province of Cuenca, bought in 1976, and so always had a base in Spain.

The madness of Brexit infuriated me. The antics of the government of Boris Johnson since the UK’s exit from the EU were the final straw and made me decide to become Spanish. One can grieve the loss of a country (and the values it used to represent, including pragmatism and tolerance) and not just that of a person, even though one still holds the passport of that country.

This loss has been more than compensated by becoming Spanish.