Residents of Gibraltar were warned on Thursday it was “of fundamental importance” that they prepare for the possibility that ongoing negotiations for a UK/EU treaty fail to reach a final agreement.
The stark warning was set out in a 40-page booklet on planning for a so-called “non-negotiated outcome”.
Until now, bridging measures implemented by Spain pending the outcome of treaty talks have softened the impact on Gibraltarians of the inevitable consequences of Brexit after the end of the transition period on January 31, 2021.
But without an agreement, Gibraltar would become a third country for the EU, meaning increased bureaucracy and the prospect, in particular, of hefty delays at the border arising from systematically tighter immigration controls.
The booklet leaves no doubt as to the dire impact of a non-negotiated outcome on many aspects of life that are currently taken for granted.
As third-country nationals, Gibraltarians with British passports would have a cap on the amount of time they could spend in the EU’s Schengen area, namely 90 days in any 180-day period.
That would place limits on regular crossings into Spain and would impact people with second homes in Spain unless they are EU nationals or resident there.
It would also have implication on everything ranging from accessing emergency healthcare to studying and working in the EU.
“It is of fundamental importance for citizens, on the basis of the guidance provided, to prepare themselves for the possibility of NNO,” the booklet says.
“This will mitigate the consequences of not being able to agree a treaty to the greatest extent possible.”
“It will clearly be impossible to mitigate those effects completely because in many cases the new situation will simply reflect life outside the EU."
Gibraltar has conducted extensive planning for a no deal outcome and in many areas such as food imports and waste management already operates as a non-EU third country.
But it is perhaps in the area of border fluidity and immigration controls that the worst impacts will be felt.
The government said frontier workers should prepare for lengthy delays at the border particularly at peak times, and should explore with employers the possibility of staggering shifts to avoid rush-hour periods.
And it warned too that whatever controls and checks were imposed on Gibraltarians entering the EU would be reciprocated on this side of the border, raising the prospect of tit-for-tat measures that would impact most on regular commuters including those who cross the border for their livelihoods.
“In the event of a NNO the Government will require every frontier worker to comply with equivalent requirements to those imposed on Gibraltar residents to cross to Spain,” the leaflet states.
“This is the principle of ‘reciprocity’ which is commonly accepted in international relations.”
“As a result, cross frontier workers who are not covered by the Withdrawal Agreement should ensure they have passports available for inspection on entry into Gibraltar.”
“Those who are covered by the Withdrawal Agreement will have to demonstrate this through the daily provision of valid travel and identity documents also.”
Despite the booklet’s bleak contents, the Gibraltar Government said it remained committed to negotiating a treaty based on the New Year’s Eve political framework agreement.
Negotiators have already concluded five rounds of talks, with at least one more round scheduled before the March date by which the UK, with Gibraltar, and the EU hope to have concluded a deal.
For now, all sides have signalled progress in talks that all agree have been held in a constructive spirit.
But likewise all side have signalled too that there remain complex areas of disagreement to resolve, although the detail of those discussions has been kept tightly under wraps for now.
The negotiators hope to reach an agreement by March allowing a common travel area between Gibraltar and the Schengen zone.
Spain, as neighbouring country, would take responsibility on behalf of the EU for Schengen immigration checks in Gibraltar, but Frontex officers would carry out the actual physical controls on the ground, at least for the first four years.
There is also the possibility of a bespoke arrangement on customs.
In a joint foreword to the booklet, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia said Gibraltar would continue to strive for a deal.
“Negotiations have taken place in a constructive and cooperative atmosphere and, whilst progress has been made, discussions need to resume in order for the parties to attempt to resolve the complex issues which remain outstanding,” they wrote.
“Until this treaty is negotiated and until it enters into force Gibraltar will be treated as a third country with respect to the EU for all intents and purposes.”
“However, the full effect of this is currently tempered by a number of time-limited bridging measures which govern Gibraltar’s relationship with Spain in specific areas.”
“The Government remains committed to the framework agreement concluded together with the United Kingdom and Spain as the way forward.”
“However, since the UK or Gibraltar would never accept an agreement which would sacrifice fundamentals or put Gibraltar’s future prosperity in jeopardy, we must also be ready to walk away.”
“Therefore we must plan for an agreement and for no agreement at the same time.”
The Guidance to Citizens is now available on-line here and a hard copy will be printed and distributed to households in Gibraltar shortly.