Albares says ‘absurd’ to exclude airport from UK/EU treaty on Gibraltar

Spain’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Jose Manuel Albares, said it would be “absurd” to exclude the airport from any UK/EU treaty on Gibraltar’s post-Brexit relations with the bloc, adding it must “of course” be included in any agreement.

Mr Albares made the comments during an interview with El Pais published on Sunday, three days before the next formal round of negotiation between the UK and the EU.

Spain has long sought “joint use” of the airport, something the UK and Gibraltar reject because it could raise sovereignty implications.

They favour “enhanced use” instead and note that the airport was not included in the New Year’s Eve framework agreement that forms the basis for the treaty talks.

How that ‘enhanced use’ could work in practice, while respecting red lines on sovereignty, is one of the key remaining issues in the negotiation, which will continue in London later this week when officials from the UK – with Gibraltar – and the EU meet again in London for the 14th formal round of talks.

“What sense would it make to leave out an element as beneficial for the population as the airport?” Mr Albares told El Pais.

“To me, it seems like progress that flights can come from Spanish airports and from other European countries, promoting tourism and relationships.”

“The airport has to be in the agreement, of course.”

The interview with El Pais was widely reported but although headlines highlighted Spain’s insistence on “joint use”, Mr Albares himself was careful not to use that phrase.

Instead, he said a formula could be found and that the UK was willing to explore options to allow EU flights to and from Gibraltar.

“Everything related to Brexit is complex, but I am convinced that the formula can be found,” Mr Albares said in the interview.

“What's the alternative? That one cannot land at that airport? It seems absurd to me.”

Negotiators have not set a deadline for the talks but with European elections due next June and the UK likely set for a general election perhaps as early as April or May, the consensus is that a negotiation spanning two years is now in its final stages.

Last week, European Commission executive vice president Maros Sefcovic, who is leading the negotiation for the EU, said he was confident negotiators could achieve “quite big progress”.

He said the Commission would do its “utmost” to secure a deal but cautioned too that the “final push” would be “the most difficult”.

Asked by El Pais if he thought an agreement was possible, Mr Albares said: “I am optimistic, but it does not depend on me. Spain is doing everything it can.”

Mr Albares was speaking just days after the UK’s Minister for Europe, Leo Docherty, tols the House of Commons that from the outset, the UK Government, “working side-by-side with the Government of Gibraltar”, had presented proposals that sought to maintain “the careful balance” of the New Year’s Eve framework agreement.

“We are prepared to explore practical and technical options to facilitate flights between Gibraltar and the EU,” Mr Docherty said in a written response to a parliamentary question.

“The UK will only agree to terms that the Government of Gibraltar are content with and will not agree to anything that compromises sovereignty.”

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo told The Times that Gibraltar remained committed to reaching an agreement that respected all sides’ core positions on sovereignty.

“We are very clear about the great many opportunities this agreement can create for Gibraltar and the area around us,” he said in an article published on Monday.

“We are committed to delivering a great agreement but in a way that requires neither Spain nor Gibraltar to compromise on fundamentals.”

“We are sharpening our pencils to deliver a deal that delivers a rainbow of opportunities that will bring prosperity for the benefit of the whole region.”

“The use of the airport for European flights in that equation would be good, but it is not essential.”