Brexit disputes threaten to leave Gibraltar with hard border

Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares will meet with mayors of towns near the British Overseas Territory amid concerns that strict checks might make a comeback

Border control at Gibraltar.
Border control at Gibraltar.Jon Nazca / Reuters

The ghost of a hard Brexit is haunting Gibraltar once again. Instead of being eliminated, the border between the British Overseas Territory and Spain, known locally as La Verja (literally, the fence), could become a daily nightmare for the nearly 10,000 Spaniards who cross it every day for work.

If ongoing post-Brexit negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union fail to bear fruit, the European Commission could demand that Spain start carrying out the kind of checks on passengers and goods at La Verja that are performed at the EU’s external borders.

Right now the biggest danger is that the Gibraltar negotiation could be affected by stalled talks on the Northern Ireland protocol, after the British government signaled that it wants to replace rules it agreed to in 2019 covering trade between Northern Ireland (in the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (in the EU).

Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said on Sunday that the differences over the protocol should not condition the Gibraltar deal. “They are two different issues that have absolutely nothing to do with each other; what’s more, they are two different negotiations,” he said.

But sources consulted by this newspaper said that it will be very difficult to keep both negotiations separate, as they are taking place simultaneously and both depend on European Commission Vice President Maros Šefčovič.

They are two different issues that have absolutely nothing to do with each other; what’s more, they are two different negotiations
Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares

Gibraltar, which is located at the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula, overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU at the 2016 Brexit referendum. The territory, which has been the source of years-long disputes with Madrid, was left out of the main Brexit deal between the EU and the United Kingdom, meaning that a separate agreement is required.

A preliminary framework deal was agreed on December 31 by Spain and the UK for the future relationship between the EU and Gibraltar. Under this deal, Gibraltar would join the Schengen area, a European free-travel zone that is made up of 26 countries, despite not being formally part of the EU itself. But now that best-case scenario is hanging in the balance once again.

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. For Gibraltar, it is crucial to avoid a similar kind of isolation as when the late dictator Francisco Franco closed the border in June 1969 and kept it shut for the next 16 years.

Last week, European and British delegations held the first round on the future status of Gibraltar with a view to reaching a deal before the end of the year. In theory, all they need to do is to put down in a formal treaty the content of the preliminary agreement reached on December 31 that gives Gibraltar all the advantages of Schengen membership, with Spain acting as the guarantor. There is a sticking point, however: the role of Spanish police and EU Frontex customs officers at the port and airport of Gibraltar.

But for now the biggest problem is the Northern Ireland protocol, which could have a knock-on effect on the Gibraltar talks. The problem is that time is running out, and the dispute over checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from England, Scotland or Wales could end up resurrecting the old border between Gibraltar and La Línea de la Concepción, the way it was before Spain joined the EU in 1986.

For now, the Gibraltar negotiating teams are planning to hold two rounds of talks in November and hope to close a deal on the week of December 13. But the concern is palpable. “If the dispute over Ireland is not resolved by the end of the year, or if London acts on its threat to unilaterally suspend the protocol, it will be very hard to conclude the negotiation on Gibraltar, no matter how much progress is made,” said a European source.

No man’s land

Ever since the Brexit transition period ended on December 31, Gibraltar has effectively been in no man’s land, outside the EU and without coverage from the trade and cooperation treaty regulating the relationship between the UK and the EU. From a legal standpoint, La Verja has already become an external border of the EU, although in practice it remains in the same situation as when it was a part of the union.

Sources consulted by this newspaper said that the EU Commission is looking the other way while talks are underway to, presumably, eliminate La Verja altogether. But this situation cannot last indefinitely, and sooner or later the Commission will have to demand implementation of Schengen controls, including visas and passports.

Additionally, contingency agreements on healthcare for cross-border workers, the validity of UK drivers’ licenses in Spain and other practical matters will expire on October 31. Minister Albares is planning to meet with mayors of towns located in Campo de Gibraltar to issue a message of calm, but without losing sight of the fact that preparations need to be made for the possibility of a hard border scenario in Gibraltar.

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