Pablo Echenique is one of the five Podemos members elected to the European Parliament in 2014, and currently running for parliament in the upcoming Spanish general election. On Monday 26 October, he was scheduled to talk at the UCL European Institute, however the event had to be cancelled when he ran into difficulties at the UK Border. Here, he explains the full story…
Imagine a government that pursues the following reasoning: approximately 5% of the population suffer from lactose intolerance and some of them don’t know it. If you eat some cheese or drink some milk and you are one of these few people, you may become ill. Solution: completely ban the production and sale of milk and cheese or at least make it absurdly difficult, long and expensive. There you go. Problem solved!
Seems stupid? Well, tell that to David Cameron. This is exactly what his government has done regarding travelling to the UK for thousands of millions of people.
If you want to travel to the UK to eat fish and chips, three days and back home, or if you are invited – as I was this Monday – to give a talk, you’d better be a European citizen. Otherwise, you are very likely to spend more money and time in getting a UK visa than in the trip itself.
I am not joking. Bear with me.
I am a European citizen, but my wife is not (though she is my wife and therefore she has permanent residence rights). I also happen to suffer from a severe disability that hasn’t prevented me from being a Staff Scientist at the Spanish Research Council, a hardworking Member of the European Parliament for nine and a half months and now a member of the regional parliament in Aragón, Spain. Alas, my disability does prevent me from travelling alone without the assistance of my wife.
Recently, I was kindly invited by Philippe Marliere to give a talk at the European Institute of at University College London about the political movement PODEMOS of which I am a part. I was thrilled to visit London again. I love the city and its amazing accessibility for wheelchair users is not the only reason.
When I looked into the visa procedure for my wife, however, my enthusiasm began to wane.
The first thing that really surprised me was that the whole process is now contracted to a commercial company. If you think that this could mean that getting a visa is similar to changing from one mobile phone company to another, think twice. It is much worse.
You need to register an account at the company’s web page and spend endless hours filling in an absolutely ridiculous 10-page form that includes scanning every official document you ever obtained as well as some compulsory fields, which force you to choose between hiring a secretary to perform a detailed investigation of your whole life, or just lie.
If you think I am exaggerating here, just try to imagine listing all your trips outside your country of residence in the last ten years, including the day you left and the day you came back.
After this extremely useful and exciting task – taking by my estimate at least a whole afternoon to complete (remember that you are travelling for three days and that you have a job) – you must pay £85 (about 120€ and more than my wife’s Ryanair ticket) and book an appointment at your closest Visa Application Centre.
Wait. A Visa Application Centre?
Yes, and in Spain there is only one. It is in Madrid, more than 300km from where I live.
The whole thing – trip to Madrid included – can take up to three weeks, but only if money is a problem to you. If it isn’t, I have some good news. For a not-so-small fee, TLScontact (“a teleperformance company”, whatever that means) can speed up things for you and get you your visa faster.
At this point, I cannot resist quoting a very interesting part of the “How to apply for a UK Visa” guide:
If you are eligible and wish to purchase access to the Premium Lounge, a Super Priority Visa, Priority Visa, Return Courier and/or other additional services, click Added Value Services and pick from the list. If you apply as a Group/Family, please note that you need to purchase one added value service for each member of the group.
You can purchase these services by adding to the cart; then review your order and checkout.
Nope, it’s not Amazon. It’s getting a UK visa.
When I realized all of this, it was already too late and I had to choose between appealing to the customs and airport officials’ common sense or cancelling the whole event.
I once entered the UK with my wife and without a visa, thanks to the common sense of an executive decision by an official, and this was when Cameron’s laws were already in place. So I asked for an invitation letter from University College London and decided to try my luck.
As you might have guessed, I was this time stopped at the airport, shocked and disappointed.
I apologised to the organizers of the event and to the attendants and decided not to visit the UK as long as this madness is in place.
Because of a tiny number of travellers that might try to stay in the UK indefinitely after entering as tourists – something which is OK with me, but which I can see a democratically elected government might want to prevent – or because an insignificant proportion of them could be engaged in criminal activities or be a security risk, Cameron has banned non-European tourism as well as cultural, political or scientific talks and events involving non-European guests.
I didn’t want to believe it, but he has banned milk and cheese.
P.S.: After the event had been cancelled and following some calls by a number of worried Podemos colleagues to its contacts, the UK Embassy in Madrid kindly contacted me via email offering my wife the possibility of express action leading to the immediate procurement of a visa. I have to thank tthe Embassy personnel for their consideration and their hard work — on a Sunday! — but on the one hand it was already late, and on the other, I didn’t want to use a ‘special channel’ not available to everyone. As is often the case, good, decent, hardworking people can make bad governments and bad laws a little less bad, but that is not the solution.
Pablo Echenique is one of the five Podemos members elected to the European Parliament in 2014, and currently running for parliament in the upcoming Spanish general election.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.
This post first appeared on Open Democracy.