The following piece was first published in the Times on Tuesday 26 June. Chief Minister Fabian Picardo commented “I keep working for a Treaty, but if our sovereignty is brought into play at all, I will be the obstacle that blocks it.
See this article on Gibraltar in "The Times".
Gibraltar wants a deal so 15,000 Spanish workers can keep crossing the border
Critical talks to agree Gibraltar's long-term future post-Brexit have stalled after Spain demanded jurisdiction over the British territory’s airport.
British diplomats accused the Spanish government of making unacceptable demands that would threaten Gibraltar’s sovereignty, while Spanish officials have claimed the UK is “quibbling” over small details of the deal, describing the British attitude as “penny-wise and pound-foolish”.
There are fears the talks could break down after the Spanish general election next month, which polls suggest will return a new government hostile to any compromise.
Gibraltar, which has a land border with Spain, has been left in limbo since Brexit left it outside the European Union’s customs union and without guaranteed free movement of people.
Under a temporary agreement, Spain has unilaterally granted free border passage to workers and tourists to avoid disruption. However, this could be rescinded at any time and the aim of the negotiation is to agree a common travel area between Gibraltar and the EU’s Schengen zone, removing most immigration controls at the border.
Despite optimism earlier in the year that a deal was within reach, talks are believed to have stalled over the Spanish proposal that effectively would give it jurisdiction over Gibraltar’s airport, which is on an RAF base.
“The Spanish have asked for a regulatory framework over the management of the airport which implies Spanish jurisdiction, which is not something Gibraltar can tolerate,” Vice-Admiral Sir David Steel, the governor of Gibraltar, said.
Another point of discord is the role and scope that Spanish police would have in Gibraltar.
“We have reached a formula which would mean Frontex [the EU border agency] would manage the border on behalf of the EU, overseen by Spanish officials,” Steel said. “What does ‘overseen’ look like? We must ensure that it doesn’t stretch into sovereignty… that it does not exceed what we can accept in terms of jurisdiction and control.”
The negotiations have been complicated by the snap election in Spain, which has been called for July 23. The conservative Popular Party is ahead in the polls, but it may have to form a coalition with the hard-right Vox party, which takes a tough line on Gibraltar.
Vox previously called for the closure of Gibraltar’s land border with Spain to “suffocate” the territory and regain sovereignty over it. “If they come to power, the deal is as good as dead,” a senior Spanish official said.
“We had a chance for the first time since 1713 of securing an agreement that would have confined the distrust and anxiety that exists between Spain and Gibraltar to the bin of history,” said Steel, adding that 90 per cent of the agreement was settled. “I just hope we haven’t lost that chance.”
Jose Manuel Albares, the Spanish foreign minister, has claimed that a deal is waiting to be signed, saying last December that his country could not negotiate “eternally” with the UK.
Spain’s demands have hardened since the Socialist-led government appointed Albares as foreign minister in 2021.
Spanish officials claim the UK and Gibraltar are the obstruction to a treaty. “Yes, it rejigs the sovereignty balance slightly in Spain’s favour, but it weakens Spain’s negotiating position in the long term as a treaty would implicitly recognise UK sovereignty,” one said.
The Spanish characterisation that a treaty was ready to sign and that the British side, in particular Gibraltar’s government, was responsible for the talks stalling was rejected by Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar’s chief minister.
“All involved know that I have been a force for good in this process,” he said. “The only time I would be a block to progress is when the issue is such as sovereignty, jurisdiction and control and then I won’t just be difficult, I would be the stumbling block on which everything falls.”
Freedom of movement is essential to Gibraltar because the territory, which has a population of 30,000, is dependent on about 15,000 workers crossing the border every day from Spain, who, for example, provide half its health service staff. They also work in Gibraltar’s key online gaming and insurance businesses, as well as in tourism.
John Isola, head of the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce, said a no-deal outcome would be a “catastrophe”. “We need a treaty to give us stability and to end the limbo,” he said.