BREXIT

Spain, UK reach ‘preliminary agreement’ that will see an end to the border with Gibraltar

The country’s foreign ministers announced the deal, which will see the British Overseas Territory join the Schengen area, with just hours to go before the United Kingdom definitively leaves the EU

Cars wait in line at Spain's border with Gibraltar on Wednesday.
Cars wait in line at Spain's border with Gibraltar on Wednesday.alejandro ruesga / EL PAÍS

The border that separates Gibraltar from La Línea de la Concepción, which is known in Spanish as La Verja and was closed for 13 years (1969 to 1982), will cease to exist in six months’ time. Spain and the United Kingdom have reached a “preliminary agreement” to avoid the British Overseas Territory from becoming a hard border of the European Union. The two delegations, headed by the Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya and her British counterpart Dominic Raab, were negotiating the deal late into Wednesday night, with just hours to go before Brexit becomes a reality, and the United Kingdom definitively leaves the European Union at midnight tonight.

According to the Spanish minister, who gave a press conference today from La Moncloa, the prime ministerial palace, Gibraltar will be joining the Schengen area, a European free-travel zone that is made up of 26 countries (22 from the EU, plus Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein), meaning that the border to enter the British Overseas Territory will no longer be at La Verja, but rather at Gibraltar’s port and airport.

During the so-called “implementation period,” which will last for four years, these border controls will be headed up by the European border agency Frontex, but Spain will be responsible for the Schengen rules being observed in Gibraltar. That means that the European agents will have to render account to the Spanish authorities regarding who is permitted to enter the area and the policy of conceding visas. Anyone traveling to Gibraltar from Spanish territory will not require a passport, but British arrivals will, given that the United Kingdom is not part of the Schengen area.

The deal, which sources from La Moncloa described as “historic,” has been subject to negotiations between Spanish and British delegations since June, with Gibraltarian representatives forming part of the latter. But a final sprint was needed to get it across the line ahead of the Brexit deadline. The text has already been sent to Brussels and must now be enshrined in a treaty between the UK and the EU, given that the European Commission is the competent authority on the issue. The deal would not have been possible had Spain not managed to secure a veto over the future relationship with Gibraltar during the Brexit negotiations.

The Spanish foreign minister highlighted the fact that the measures agreed with the United Kingdom will be adopted “without prejudice to the inalienable claims of both sides in terms of the sovereignty [of Gibraltar], which have been safeguarded.”

While the necessary steps are taken to finalize the treaty, something that is forecast to take six months, “arrangements that are allowed by Schengen to ease the controls at La Verja” will be applied, in order to ensure that mobility (which is already greatly limited due to the pandemic) be “as fluid as possible,” in the words of the minister.

González Laya did not offer details about how Spain would exercise its responsibility over the Gibraltar border, nor whether, after four years, Spanish police would be stationed in the port and the airport of The Rock, as the territory is commonly known. She only went so far as to say that at the end of this period, a round of consultation is planned, and that the role of Frontex is to “assist the Spanish authorities” and to serve as a “confidence builder” – that’s to say, dispel any misgivings on the part of the Gibraltarians.

As well as forming part of Schengen, Gibraltar will be able to benefit from other EU policies, such as a customs regime for the trade of goods, always with the intermediation and support of Spain, and guaranteeing loyal competition in terms of taxation, environmental issues and work relations. This will create a paradox whereby Gibraltar – 96% of whose inhabitants voted against Brexit in the 2016 referendum – could be more integrated in the EU now that it is out of it than when the UK was part of the bloc, given that it was not part of Schengen, nor the customs union or common market.

In theory, the nearly 10,000 Spaniards who work in Gibraltar (two-thirds of the 15,000 cross-border workers, had their access via La Verja guaranteed, even if there had been no deal, provided they figured on a registry that would have let them come and go just by showing an ID card such as the Spanish DNI.

The problem is that a hard border would have seen the end of many of these jobs in Gibraltar, as well as depriving the nearby Spanish population of customers with high spending power. As such, on Monday, the mayors of eight Spanish municipalities in the neighboring area called on the governments in Madrid and London to reach an “urgent and positive” deal that would put the “interests of the citizens above any other aspect.”

For her part, González Laya said on Monday that Spain was willing to “raise La Verja” to facilitate the free circulation of people with Gibraltar, but warned that if there was no deal, it would be “the only place where there was a hard Brexit.”

The Rock was expressly excluded from the Brexit deal reached between the UK and the EU on December 24, meaning that its future was entirely dependent on the results of the negotiations between Madrid and London.

Via a statement, British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab celebrated the deal, saying that “working side by side with the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, and following intensive discussions with the Spanish government, we reached agreement on a political framework to form the basis of a separate treaty between the UK and the EU regarding Gibraltar.” In the meantime, he continued, “all sides are committed to mitigating the effects of the end of the Transition Period on Gibraltar, and in particular ensure border fluidity, which is clearly in the best interests of the people living on both sides.” Raab reiterated his government’s firm commitment to “Gibraltar and its sovereignty,” and thanked his Spanish counterpart for her “positive and constructive approach.” He concluded saying: “We have a warm and strong relationship with Spain, and we look forward to building on it in 2021.”

Writing via Twitter, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said that the deal was the start of “a new era,” saying that the preliminary agreement will “allow for barriers to be eliminated and to move toward an area of shared prosperity.” He also thanked the negotiators from the Foreign Ministry.

British Prime Minister Borish Johnson also published a tweet on Thursday afternoon, welcoming the deal.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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