Amid relentless treaty uncertainty, a hint of reassurance in stereo and two languages

The visit by Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares to the Campo de Gibraltar this week understandably generated ample media coverage on both sides of the border.

This was his first ministerial trip to the Campo and it came after a frenzy of treaty publicity in the run-up to the EU election in Spain on Sunday, and in the wake of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to call a general election in the UK for July 4.

Mr Albares met with the Campo mayors, business representatives and unions. He also held a one-to-one meeting with La Linea’s mayor, Juan Franco, recognising that city’s particular circumstances given its proximity and socio-economic links with Gibraltar.

The less-reported aspect of the minister’s visit, however, was his participation in a PSOE political rally in San Roque ahead of Sunday’s EU vote.

Yet it was here that he made what, to me at least, was the most interesting, illustrative comment of his visit to the Campo, one that was highlighted by the PSOE itself in a communique issued after the event.

Addressing people at the rally on Tuesday night, Mr Albares promised his government would “overcome the vertigo of history” to finally agree a treaty that would benefit the Campo.

If that sounds familiar, it should.

Just a day earlier, in an interview with this newspaper, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo had spoken of the “very many good people in the Spanish system who are trying to find a way around the past”.

As journalists, we often tend to focus on what separates and not what unites, on division, not on shared ground.

Yet here we had, within the space of 24 hours, two very similar messages from two key people sat at the negotiating table.

To me, that’s positive, though also an indication of the challenge faced by negotiators working on a treaty which, if agreed, would reset an often fractious cross-border relationship deeply rooted in history.

The gaps between them, even at this late stage in the negotiation, were clearly on display in the days prior to Mr Albares’ trip to the Campo this week.

Just over a week earlier, we revealed that the Spanish Government, in a response to a question in the Spanish Senate, said it expected Policia Nacional officers to play a direct role in implementing Schengen immigration controls at Gibraltar’s airport and maritime entry points.

The UK and Gibraltar governments have from the outset ruled out the presence of “Spanish boots on the ground” in Gibraltar as part of any treaty.

The two positions appear irreconcilable, and yet the common refrain on both sides of the border – and in the UK and Brussels for that matter – is that negotiators still believe a deal is possible.

What we don’t know is how.

After meeting Campo mayors in Algeciras on Tuesday, Mr Albares insisted the Spanish position was not a “capricious” whim but an EU obligation.

Schengen rules require member states to police the bloc’s external borders.

“Schengen works in one way, and there are no two ways in which it can work,” he told reporters.

Given that any agreement on Schengen and Gibraltar will be carefully scrutinised not just by existing Schengen members but countries working to join too, there is clearly some truth in that argument.

And given the historical backdrop and the sovereignty issue, agreeing any deviation in the first place will be complex. So too will be explaining it to other EU members.

It reminded me, once again, of the words of the European Commission’s chief negotiator, Maros Sefcovic, in Brussels last month after the second high-level meeting of the Gibraltar negotiation.

Mr Sefcovic told reporters that discussions were “very political, but I also have to say extremely technical”.

“We need to work at both political level to provide the steer, to show the political leadership on these issues, and have very strong support by our technical teams that what we agreed will be then, of course, implementable and be technically feasible,” he added.

The reference to “technically feasible” chimes with Mr Albares’ message in Algeciras this week.

But the Spanish minister has also repeatedly acknowledged that the EU’s border agency Frontex will have a role to play too, as set out in the New Year’s Eve framework agreement that is the foundation of the present negotiation.

Mr Albares spoke of Frontex “assisting” Spain’s Policia Nacional and, whatever that means in practice, it may well leave room for manoeuvre in the talks.

Not that any of this makes things clearer for those of us on both sides of the border watching eagerly for any hint of progress.

A treaty is important to Gibraltar, of that there is no doubt. But it is vital too to the Campo, as Mr Albares was reminded this week in conversations with business leaders and unions representing cross-border workers.

We all have skin in the game, on both sides of the border.

With the EU election just days away, Mr Albares focused too on another important aspect of the current impasse.

Spain’s Partido Popular, complaining about a lack of transparency in the negotiation, has already signalled its intention to rally right-wing parties in the European Parliament to halt the ratification of any treaty it does not agree with.

Polling ahead of the EU vote suggests right-wing parties both in Spain and across the EU will strengthen their position in the European Parliament.

If the PP makes true on its promise, that could prove problematic even if negotiators manage to agree a treaty, given it will have to be approved by the European Parliament before it can be put into effect.

At the San Roque rally, Mr Albares was blunt: “We don’t need more PP MEPs, we need more Socialist MEPs in order to secure this agreement.”

The minister also left little doubt that, although technical teams continue with essential work and will meet again next week, there will be no political movement on this treaty until after the UK’s July 4 election.

The Labour party, which is expected to win solidly in the UK, has already stated publicly on numerous occasions that the UK’s negotiating position on Gibraltar will not change, in large part because the Gibraltar Government has spent many months ensuring the Labour camp has a deep understanding of the issues at play.

But for now, all that we have is continued uncertainty cushioned by the fact that all sides, despite their differences, appear to be singing from, if not yet signing, the same hymn sheet.

And the chorus they’re trying to fine tune is a treaty to provide post-Brexit legal certainty and stability to communities on both sides of the border who just want to go about their daily lives and bring an end to this saga.

Last week Mr Picardo spoke of the need for “patience and stoic calm” in this endgame.

This week, Mr Albares said he brought “a message of reassurance and calm”.

It may well be wishful thinking, but it’s like listening to the same soundtrack in stereo and in two languages.

From where I’m sitting, that’s likely no coincidence.

Whatever the background noise, they’re all still at the table and working to reach the same destination.

The Chief Minister warns that the EU Parliament has final say on any treaty agreement.

Fabian Picardo says we should be concerned about a shift towards right-wing politics across the continent, given the potential implications for Gibraltar.