Spain says treaty ball is in UK court, but is it really?

I struggled on Monday to understand all the excitement generated by a few comments from Jose Manuel Albares, Spain’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, in a brief intervention on Gibraltar during a wider session on global affairs in the Spanish parliament.

At first blush, it was more of the same.

Spain, he said, had presented a “comprehensive, balanced and generous proposal” to create a shared prosperity zone between Gibraltar and the Campo de Gibraltar.

That agreement, Mr Albares added, would allow the free movement of people and goods, the “physical removal of the fence” and the “joint use” of the airport.

Spain was “ready to sign the agreement” and the ball was in the UK court.

Those comments, served up in breathless bullet points by one Spanish media outlet, triggered much speculation on both sides of the border.

But in reality, we’d heard it all before.

Except – and this was missed in most of the coverage – there was something new in what he said.

Firstly, Mr Albares appealed to the Partido Popular to back the Spanish Government’s efforts to reach a deal, insisting Spain’s sovereignty aspirations were not being undermined by the negotiation.

“Send me the document, not your words,” replied Carlos Floriano, the PP spokesman in the parliament’s Foreign Affairs Commission, voicing concern Mr Albares’ would “hand over Gibraltar” in his effort to “make a mark” with a historic deal.

How we should read that exchange is anyone’s guess.

Was Mr Albares getting ready to bring an agreement to parliament? Was he seeking cross-party consensus in a negotiation where there are still, clearly, differences with the UK and Gibraltar? Was he preparing the ground to soften news of failure in the negotiation if Spain doesn’t get what it wants? Was the PP - and the PSOE, for that matter - using the Gibraltar negotiation to score domestic political points?

And in selling the agreement to the parliamentary committee, Mr Albares uttered another phrase that jumped out, at least to me.

The Gibraltar treaty, he said, was “a matter of vital importance for Spain in its relations with the European Union”.

He’s never said that before.

To understand what it might point to, we have to go back into the archive.

The airport appears to be the last stumbling block in the final stages of this complex negotiation. The Governor, Vice Admiral Sir David Steel, said as much in an interview with The Times last December, when he suggested Madrid’s proposal would effectively give Spain jurisdiction over Gibraltar’s airport. This is “not something that Gibraltar can tolerate,” he told the newspaper.

Mr Albares first raised Spain’s hopes of including “joint use” of the airport in the treaty in December 2022 during a press conference in Madrid with the then UK Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly.

He was immediately rebuffed. Forget “joint use”, he was told by the UK and Gibraltar, but let’s explore options for “enhanced use” of the airport.

Last December, the UK repeated that position and said it was “prepared to explore practical and technical options to facilitate flights between Gibraltar and the EU”.

Implicit in that statement was a desire for compromise, not concession.

And that, pretty much, appears to be where we’re still at: Spain is asking for something that the UK and Gibraltar cannot give.

That’s a position that’s raising eyebrows not just here and in London, but in Brussels too.

As far back as last March, the Chronicle reported that Madrid’s position had created frustration in Brussels after so many – even back then – negotiating rounds, and so much collective effort in Gibraltar, London, Madrid and Brussels.

The New Year’s Eve political framework on which the negotiation is built did not talk about the airport as a key element of any treaty. The spirit of that agreement was to avoid the tricky, historical issues that everyone one knew would derail any negotiation.

Way back in November 2018, even before this phase of our post-Brexit travails had commenced, Spain’s then state secretary for Europe, Marco Arguiriano, had spelt it out. He said the PSOE was not renouncing Spain’s historical sovereignty aspirations but added that both Gibraltar and the UK would have “closed ranks and refused to negotiate” had Madrid pushed for sovereignty gains.

Could it be, then, that Mr Albares, in highlighting the ‘vital importance’ of the treaty to Spain’s relations with the EU, was in fact reflecting underlying tension with Brussels over Madrid’s insistence on “joint use” of the airport?

If the treaty negotiation collapses because of an intransigent Spanish position pegged on its age-old sovereignty aspirations and the airport, that will be hard to explain in Brussels.

It will also be hard to explain to Spanish citizens in the Campo de Gibraltar whose post-Brexit problems, just like ours, could be resolved by a hard-won treaty that achieves consensus and compromise on a host of other issues, mobility above all.

People in the UK and Gibraltar, on other hand, might be more accommodating of their negotiators if it all went pear shaped because they refused to step over long-entrenched red lines. The airport is one such line.

Not that we’d be happy, of course. As Dr Joseph Garcia, the Deputy Chief Minister who is tasked with ‘no deal’ contingency planning, told GBC this week: “The alternative, a ‘no treaty’ world, is not worth thinking about.”

The UK and Gibraltar’s position was set out again this week in a statement from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office - issued after Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron met Chief Minister Fabian Picardo in London - that edged a little further than the usual standard lines.

“Both ministers reiterated their strong commitment to continue working side-by-side to conclude a treaty with the EU and provide certainty for those living and working in Gibraltar,” the FCDO said.

“The Foreign Secretary noted that while the negotiations were complex, he remained confident that a treaty was achievable and can deliver for everyone in the region.”

And in a clear, if diplomatically worded swipe at Mr Albares and his “generous proposal”, the statement added: “Throughout negotiations the UK, with Gibraltar, has presented proposals to secure future prosperity for the whole region that maintain the balance of the Political Framework agreed with Spain in December 2020.”

That balance, let’s not forget, did not include the airport.

And there was one more line from the FCDO, lest people forget the baseline of Gibraltar’s partnership with the UK: “The Foreign Secretary reiterated the UK’s unwavering support for Gibraltar and that we will not agree to anything that compromises sovereignty.”

Mr Albares has for many months sought to put the onus on the UK. He did so again this week, insisting Spain was “awaiting the response from the United Kingdom”.

But Spain knows – as do the UK, Gibraltar and the EU – that some proposals will simply draw a ‘no’ from the other side, hence the desire from the outset to avoid sovereignty minefields wherever possible.

So really, the onus may in fact be on Madrid, not London.

The wider backdrop to all of this, one which we often neglect to factor in, is a troubled world where the UK and Spain are close allies in an increasingly dangerous and volatile international environment scarred by conflict and the risk of escalation.

Neither Spain nor the UK need a ruckus over Gibraltar in the current landscape. And neither does the EU.

Perhaps we should read Mr Albares’ comments this week against that context.