EU draft proposal on Gibraltar that ‘seeks to undermine UK sovereignty’ rejected by British government

The European Commission’s mandate would give Spain control over entry points at the British Overseas Territory

People crossing the runway at Gibraltar airport.
People crossing the runway at Gibraltar airport.JON NAZCA (Reuters)

Spain’s new foreign minister, José Manuel Albares, is flying to the United Kingdom on Wednesday on his first trip since taking up the portfolio in mid-July. Albares, who has replaced Arancha González Laya as part of a sweeping Cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, will have to deal with negative reaction by the UK government and Gibraltar over the European Commission’s draft proposal to start negotiations with the UK on the subject of the British Overseas Territory.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said that the mandate, approved by the EU executive on Tuesday, “directly conflicts” with an earlier framework agreed on December 31 by Spain and the UK for the future relationship between the EU and Gibraltar, which is located at the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula and has been a recurring source of friction between Spain and Britain.

Raab also said that the European Commission’s draft mandate “seeks to undermine the UK’s sovereignty” over the overseas territory and cannot form a basis for negotiations about the future relationship between the EU and Gibraltar, which was left out of the Brexit deal, meaning that a separate agreement is required. In the Brexit referendum of 2016, Gibraltarians overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU.

Speaking along the same lines, Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said that in light of the current draft, there is “no possibility for this forming the basis for an agreement.”

A major sticking point is the fact that the mandate only talks about Spanish officers performing border controls at Gibraltar’s entry points, without mentioning the presence of the European agency Frontex, which had been a requirement made by the UK and Gibraltar. Diplomatic sources explained that legally, Spain would at all times be the legal guarantor of those border controls even if it had support from the European agency.

“External border control and surveillance would take place at Gibraltar port, airport and waters carried out by Spain applying the relevant EU rules,” reads the Commission document. “Spanish border guards would have all necessary powers to perform border controls and surveillance.”

Spain would also be in charge of issuing visas. This means that citizens of the UK and third countries wishing to enter Gibraltar would need a visa extended by Spanish authorities. “UK nationals other than those resident in Gibraltar at the time of signature of the agreement would be treated as third country nationals for the purposes of entry and stay in Gibraltar,” reads the draft mandate.

Movement of people and goods

A border check between Spain and Gibraltar in January of this year.
A border check between Spain and Gibraltar in January of this year. PACO PUENTES

Maintaining smooth circulation between Gibraltar and the neighboring, economically depressed Spanish area of Campo de Gibraltar, home to many cross-border workers, has been a priority for both sides since the UK voted to leave the EU.

In practice, land border checks would be removed and Gibraltar would become part of Schengen, an area of 26 European countries that have abolished border controls, under Spain’s exclusive responsibility: residents of Gibraltar could freely move around Schengen territory for 90 days in any six-month period. The UK is not a part of Schengen.

The negotiating mandate approved by the Commission on Tuesday, which should lead to a UK-EU treaty before the end of the year, seeks to “remove physical barriers to the circulation of persons and goods [between Gibraltar and Spain] to contribute to shared prosperity within the region.”

The document also notes that the EU may unilaterally reinstate physical barriers and controls on the movement of goods in the event of a serious breach of terms by the UK. This clause reflects the Commission’s distrust at a time when British authorities are questioning the Northern Ireland agreement that prevented a hard Brexit.

The mandate also underscores that any agreement reached by the parties will not affect the UK and Spanish positions regarding sovereignty over Gibraltar, which was ceded to Britain in 1713 during the War of Spanish Succession, although disputes over sovereignty and jurisdiction issues remain to this day.

English version by Susana Urra.

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