Spain’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Jose Manuel Albares, told the Spanish Parliament on Tuesday that negotiators for a UK/EU post-Brexit treaty on Gibraltar are “very close to an agreement”, repeating earlier positive sentiment despite the lack of tangible progress toward a deal.
Mr Albares was quizzed on progress in the treaty talks during a session of the foreign affairs commission in the Spanish Congress.
“Our position is very transparent,” Mr Albares said, reminding MPs that Spain had in December made a proposal for an agreement which he described as “reasonable” and “balanced”, and which sought to create “an area of shared prosperity” and was “guided by the interests of 270,000 Spaniards who live in the Campo de Gibraltar”.
After the last formal round in January – the twelfth since the negotiations commenced – the Gibraltar Government said it remained optimistic that a “safe, secure and beneficial” treaty between the UK and the EU on Gibraltar’s post-Brexit relations with the bloc could be concluded.
But while the statements from all sides remain positive, there are clearly still issues to resolve.
What those issues are, however, is something negotiators are keeping a tight lid on, having previously stated on numerous occasions that they will not negotiate in public or through the media.
Discussions continue in between formal rounds but for now, there is little change to the position set out last January, as evidenced in the latest public comments from Spain.
On Tuesday Mr Albares said it was now for the UK to “decide whether or not it wants an agreement”.
“Having said this, I see a constructive spirit in the British Foreign Secretary – [though] I cannot be inside his head,” he added, again repeating earlier sentiment.
“We have advanced a lot [and] I think we a very close to an agreement but, evidently, nothing is decided here until everything is decided.”
From the outset, all sides in the Gibraltar negotiation have been at pains to stress that talks between the UK and the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol are entirely separate to the negotiation on the Gibraltar treaty.
But for months it was also self-evident that fallout over Northern Ireland could sour relations and trust between the UK and the EU and potentially spill over into the Gibraltar negotiations, at best slowing them down just as they entered the final, critical phase, or at worst derailing them altogether.
Likewise progress on Northern Ireland could potentially provide a fillip to discussions on the Rock’s future relations on Gibraltar.
Despite the two being starkly different and separate issues, positive sentiment on Northern Ireland in recent days - and not so positive subsequent reaction on the Tory backbenches on Tuesday - would have been closely tracked both here and in Madrid, as well as in London and Brussels.
Negotiators on the Northern Ireland protocol said they could “see the finishing line” for a deal as fresh high-level talks were arranged with the European Union amid warnings of potential ministerial resignations over any deal.
Irish premier Leo Varadkar was unsure whether a breakthrough could come this week, but said a “huge amount of progress has been made” as he called for UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to be given “some time and space” so he can consult with the Conservatives.
UK Health Minister Maria Caulfield, a Brexiteer who quit Theresa May’s frontbench over her Chequers plan, urged colleagues to “support the Prime Minister”.
“There isn’t a deal done yet so all these rumours about ministers or MPs not being happy, I haven’t seen the details, we have to give the Prime Minister that time and space to get these negotiations done,” she told Times Radio.
“We need to give him the time and space to thrash out the final elements of any final deal.”
But Jacob Rees-Mogg, a former Cabinet minister and long-term critic of Mr Sunak, criticised the Prime Minister’s tactics as similar to those that eventually led to the resignation of Theresa May as prime minister.
The prominent Brexiteer accused Rishi Sunak of imitating Mrs May’s doomed Brexit strategy even as Tory Eurosceptics were urged to allow provide the leeway needed to fix the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Mr Rees-Mogg questioned why “so much political capital” was being spent on brokering a new deal without ensuring the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and his wing of the Conservative Party were on board.
He joined Boris Johnson in urging Mr Sunak to press ahead with the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, effectively ripping up parts of the agreement with Brussels, rather than seeking a deal which may not guarantee the return of a powersharing executive in Stormont.
But in a new rift in the Tory party, former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland wrote in an article published in
The House magazine that the Bill “no longer has any legal justification” now the situation has “dramatically” changed.
On his ConservativeHome podcast, Mr Rees-Mogg said: “There seems to me to be no point in agreeing a deal that does not restore powersharing.”
“That must be the objective. If it doesn’t achieve that objective, I don’t understand why the Government is spending political capital on something that won’t ultimately succeed.”
He said the Bill has the support of “the person who had a mandate from the British voters” – Mr Johnson – and he said Mr Sunak should first get the approval of the European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative Eurosceptics.
“I don’t know why so much political capital has been spent on something without getting the DUP and the ERG onside first,” Mr Rees-Mogg said.
It was “very similar to what happened with Theresa May” where a policy would be presented in the hope that people would “conveniently fall in behind” it, he said.
“Life doesn’t work like that. It’s important to get support for it first before you finalise the details and that doesn’t seem to have been done here.”
UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris held fresh video talks with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic on Tuesday afternoon.
Mr Sefcovic said the talks “continue at high intensity” and “we remain in close touch, focused on finding joint solutions”, indicating they were set to speak again soon.
They had been expected to hold face-to-face talks later this week following conversations by video link on Monday and Tuesday.
UK Government insiders told the Press Association they believe a deal could be struck in the coming days, but acknowledged it would slip to next week if not concluded by the one-year anniversary of the Ukrainian conflict on Friday.
Mr Sunak told his Cabinet meeting “intensive negotiations with the EU continue on resolving the issues with the way the protocol was being enforced”, Downing Street said.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Negotiations have progressed and that is to be welcomed, but there still remain a number of unresolved issues. And as is the nature of these negotiations it is often some of the more long-lasting challenges that need to be addressed as you get to this point, and that’s not unusual.”
The spokesman disputed Mr Rees-Mogg’s suggestion that the DUP and ERG should have been brought into discussions earlier, saying “we have been speaking to relevant parties at the appropriate times throughout this process”.
“Engagement will continue as we continue to negotiate, emphasising there are still intensive negotiations ongoing. There is no finished deal,” the official added.