During his seven year stint as British consul of the Baleares, Paul Abrey made it his business to communicate effectively with the local British expat community as well as a good number of the 3.5 million British holidaymakers visiting the islands annually.
Coming from the private sector Paul was a breath of fresh air, the sort of roll up your sleeves, unpretentious type who didn’t scuttle into his modest office at the Consulate and close the door, but bothered to mix with British residents and listen to what they had to say. He even penned his own column in the English daily newspaper, the Majorca Daily Bulletin, to explain the work of his team at the Consulate, and made every effort to attend charity events, fetes, talks and dinners outside of working hours in order to become better acquainted with British expats. He made a point of making friends and contacts within the local Spanish community too, greatly aided by his Majorcan wife, Mar.
And now that’s all come to an end. Like a firecracker that has lost its spark, the Consulate this week bids farewell to Paul and braces itself for perhaps a stark new era. Similarly to the Canaries, the role of a permanently based consul has been dismissed as part of a “wider restructuring of the British Consular network in Spain.” There are four remaining consuls on the mainland based in Alicante, Malaga, Barcelona and Madrid. As part of the new restructure – some less charitable might say ‘cost cutting’- Andrew Gwatkin, currently Consul-General in Barcelona, will now cover the whole of north-east Spain and will have responsibility for the Baleares too. In the same way, his counterpart in Malaga, will be covering the Canary Islands which like the Balearic islands are home to more than 40,000 British residents and welcome a huge number of British visitors each year.
In its 2012 British Behaviour Abroad Report, the Foreign Office revealed that of the 13.6 million British visitors to Spain, 3.5 million holidayed in the Baleares. Together with British visitor numbers to the Canary Islands, that accounts for nearly half of all British visitors to Spain and yet these are the two Consulates being relieved of resident consuls.
During the last two years hospitalisations in the Baleares soared with a 132 per cent rise in Majorca, accounting for 307 cases (the highest number dealt with by any consulate worldwide), and a 40 per cent increase in Ibiza, with 239 cases, which in total accounts for almost half the number of hospitalisations
1,105 of Britons in Spain. This year alone Paul Abrey and his hard working team of just four staff boosted to six in the summer months issued 1,500 emergency passports and dealt with 1,100 – mostly serious- consular assisted cases.
Aside from ill health, drug and alcohol related crime, fights, road accidents, theft, rape, muggings and balcony falls, the British consul and his team have to deal with heart-breaking cases of those killed unexpectedly while on holiday. I will never forget one Sunday morning happening across Paul Abrey and his stoic vice consul, gently comforting a mother at Palma airport who had lost both her husband and young son in a drowning incident.
It therefore begs the question why when Balearic consular staff members are seemingly stretched to the limit, the role of permanent consul is being removed. It appears that certain Consulates in other parts of the globe not only have consuls but enjoy higher staffing levels even though arguably their caseloads are less arduous.
An additional vice consul is to be employed in the Balearic Consulate in order to boost the number of case handlers but time will tell whether the new ‘restructuring’ will cope with British visitor demands and be able to fulfill the ambassadorial role played by the consul in one of the areas of Spain most visited –and populated- by Britons.
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