Spain sets a 72-hour ultimatum in a bid to avoid a ‘hard Brexit’ in Gibraltar

The Spanish Cabinet will today approve a raft of measures that will cover the new relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom once the latter definitively leaves the bloc

Spain's Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya speaking on Monday.
Spain's Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya speaking on Monday.EMILIO NARANJO (EFE)
Miguel González

Between the carrot and the stick. With 72 hours to go before, at 12 midnight on December 31, the United Kingdom definitively leaves the European Union, Spain’s Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya stated on Monday that Spain is prepared to “open the gates” of Gibraltar, the contested British Overseas Territory, and facilitate the free movement of people between Spain and “The Rock,” as it is commonly known. But, she warned, if there is no deal, Gibraltar will be “the only place where there is a hard Brexit,” something that London and Brussels have been able to avoid with the last-minute trade deal that was reached on Christmas Eve. The Spanish Cabinet will on Tuesday approve a raft of adaptation measures covering the new relationship between the EU and the UK, once it is out of the 27-country bloc.

Gibraltar is expressly excluded from the agreement reached between Brussels and London on December 24, and its future depends on the progress of the talks between Spain and the United Kingdom (with Gibraltar forming part of the British delegation) that have been ongoing since June. If talks are successful, Gibraltar would become part of the Schengen Area, an alliance of European countries that have abolished border controls. The British territory was not a part of this passport-free space even when the UK was still a member of the EU.

Negotiations will continue “until the last second of 2020,” to avoid Gibraltar becoming a “hard border” of the EU, said Spain’s foreign minister

On Monday, González Laya insisted that Spain is seeking an agreement that permits for the greatest possible movement between her country and the British territory, and that favors an “area of shared prosperity” on both sides of “La Verja,” as the border is known. She added that negotiations would continue “until the last second of 2020,” to avoid Gibraltar becoming a “hard border” of the EU.

If there is no deal, she warned, people crossing the border would have to have their passports stamped when entering or leaving the territory. This would not include the 15,000 cross-border workers who are officially registered, and would just have to show an ID document such as the Spanish DNI. “On a smaller scale, one of the consequences could be that lines form similar to those that we have seen in Dover,” the minister admitted, in allusion to the thousands of trucks that were left stranded in the UK last week after France closed its borders due to the identification in the south of England of a new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus.

González Laya went on to point out that the residents of Gibraltar will not be subject to the personal benefits that the Brexit deal will include for other Britons. She cited the fact that The Rock would be left out of European air space, and that its inhabitants would no longer have access to the Spanish Social Security system, they would need a specific endorsement of their drivers license, and would have to pay an additional charge for their vehicle insurance.

Prepared for the worst

For months, the government of Gibraltar has been publishing a series of Technical Notices informing citizens and cross-border workers about the practical effects of Brexit. If, on January 1, Gibraltarians become third-country nationals to the EU, there will be changes to aspects of daily life such as pet documentation, international driver’s licenses and a ban on bringing certain food products into Spain. The Gibraltarian government has so far released 21 Technical Notices.

Today will see the Spanish Cabinet approve a raft of measures related to the EU-UK deal, covering jobs, the recognition of official qualifications, access to universities and unemployment benefits. Residents of Gibraltar will only benefit in part from these measures, according to diplomatic sources. Conceived to start with as contingency measures in order to mitigate a hard Brexit, they will in the end serve as a bridging measures to adapt the current regulations to the planned framework under the new Brexit trade deal.

González Laya ruled out the possibility of more talks on Gibraltar after December 31, and pointed out that it was the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, who set that deadline as the final date for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. She did, however, admit that if a preliminary deal is reached, the “border could be modulated” while it is formalized.

A deal on Gibraltar would represent a historic step forward for the 9,200 cross-border workers from Spain’s economically depressed Campo de Gibraltar area

While the minister refused to reveal the sticking points for a deal, sources from her department denied that Spain was demanding the presence of Spanish police officers at Gibraltar airport, which was built on the isthmus occupied illegally by the United Kingdom, as some media outlets have suggested.

The same sources stated that the negotiations are stuck on the same point as they were last week: for Spain to allow Frontex, the European border agency, to temporarily assume control of passengers in the Gibraltarian ports and airport, limiting the visibility of the Spanish authorities. Spain is insisting that Frontex should be accountable to and report to the Spanish authorities, given that it will be Spain who will be responsible to its EU partners that in Gibraltar there is observance of the rules covering Schengen.

A deal on Gibraltar would represent a historic step forward for the 9,200 cross-border workers from Spain’s economically depressed Campo de Gibraltar area, where livelihoods are heavily dependent on political decisions regarding sovereignty issues. According to Gibraltarian First Minister Fabian Picardo’s estimates, there are 15 million crossings a year between Spain and the British Overseas Territory. Sovereignty over the territory and its waters has been a point of contention ever since Gibraltar was ceded to Great Britain in 1713 during the War of Spanish Succession.

An appeal from local mayors

The mayors of eight municipalities in Campo de Gibraltar, The Rock’s Spanish neighbor, called on the Spanish and British negotiators to reach an agreement that is “urgent and positive in that the interests of citizens prevail over any other kind of aspect.” In an institutional statement, they warned of the “dire economic, social and political consequences” that no deal could have.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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