LONDON – Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and her husband led an extravagant ceremony to welcome the king and queen of Spain, who began a state visit Wednesday amid tensions between the two nations over Britain’s exit from the European Union.
The three-day visit by King Felipe VI and his wife, Queen Letizia, came amid a brewing dispute about what Brexit means for the future of Gibraltar, a tiny, rocky territory at the tip of the Iberian peninsula that Britain has controlled for three centuries against Spain’s wishes.
The two countries are also trying to resolve the status of thousands of expatriates facing uncertainty over their rights once Britain leaves the EU.
Yet there was no sign of discord as the Spanish royals arrived at Buckingham Palace, with Britain treating them to the full pomp and pageantry traditionally rolled out for visiting heads of state.
Prince Philip and Felipe first inspected troops at central London’s Horse Guards Parade, a former royal jousting yard. Dozens of soldiers on horseback then escorted both monarchs and their spouses in a spectacular procession down The Mall, which was decorated with Union Jack and Spanish flags.
Felipe rode with the queen in the 1902 State Landau, a gilded carriage built for the coronation of King Edward VII, while Philip travelled with Letizia in a separate carriage.
Later, addressing both houses of Parliament, Felipe said Spain was saddened by Britain’s decision to leave the EU but respects it. He urged the two governments to guarantee citizens’ rights after Britain’s withdrawal — a key sticking point in Brexit talks.
“Those citizens have a legitimate expectation of decent and stable living conditions for themselves and their families,” he said.
Emphasizing the strong historical ties between the two nations, the king also expressed confidence that they could overcome their differences over Gibraltar and “work towards arrangements that are acceptable for all involved.”
While the rocky enclave has been a source of friction between Britain and Spain for centuries, and spats over alleged incursions by fishing and navy vessels in Gibraltar’s waters aren’t uncommon, the Brexit negotiations have pushed the territory’s status to the forefront.
Britain is annoyed with Spain and the EU because Brussels has said that Spain should have veto rights on any agreements regarding Gibraltar during Brexit talks.
Felipe and Letizia are the first Spanish monarchs to visit Britain since Felipe’s father toured the country in the 1980s. Both royal lines are descended from Queen Victoria. Felipe’s great-grandmother, Queen Ena of Spain, was Victoria’s youngest granddaughter. Victoria is Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother.
Felipe and his wife were dining Wednesday night at a state banquet in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace, where they are staying.