What will the relationship between Gibraltar and the European Union be like post-Brexit? The answer to this question is the one that the United Kingdom and the European Commission have begun to negotiate on Monday. And solving the unknown is not going to be easy. In theory, the result should not move away from the pact reached by London and Madrid in December, but Brexit and everything that surrounds it have already shown that they have unpleasant surprises in store in each of their steps. In addition, the beginning of these talks comes at the worst moment, just when the tension between London and Brussels has increased a lot due to the situation in Northern Ireland – and it is likely to grow even more these weeks – and the problems that the British are putting to the granting of fishing licenses in the Channel Islands to French fishermen. Both issues cast pessimism on a negotiation that was promised easy due to the quick agreement that Spain and the United Kingdom reached on Gibraltar at the end of 2020.
Until the situation is resolved, the Rock will continue in the legal limbo that it has been in since January 1: this territory is not part of the European Union, but that is not why the famous Gate has been reinstated to control access of the passengers and merchandise that corresponds to any external border of the EU. This also allows the 10,000 Spaniards who work in Gibraltar to enter and leave the British colony without problems.
The technical meetings on Monday afternoon and tomorrow Tuesday in Brussels make up the first round of the talks that both parties will hold every three weeks. The next one is in London. And so on until four rounds are added until mid-December, when in theory the negotiations should end. But in Brussels there are no shortage of those who fear that the negotiations would extend further. The official position of the community spokespersons, on the other hand, is that Ireland or the fishing in the Channel go by “separate channels and, therefore, there is no comment on this”. Although to these two issues unrelated to this specific negotiation, we must add another of our own.
In July the draft of the mandate that the European Council had prepared for the Commission was known (although the Executive of Ursula von der Leyen negotiates, the Council sets its conditions) and the British did not like that document. “It seeks to undermine the sovereignty of the United Kingdom over Gibraltar and cannot constitute a basis for negotiations,” said then the head of British Foreign Relations, Dominic Raab. The Spanish Government tried to bring positions closer to London. But he has not succeeded. A few days ago it was the Secretary of State for Europe, Wendy Morton, who pointed out that her country was preparing for a “non-negotiated result”.
The Council’s mandate, approved earlier this month, is a more extensive and detailed document than the pact reached on December 31 between London and Madrid. It has an annex of 68 points and from 15 to 25 it is clear that it is “the Spanish border guards” who are in charge of the control of passengers at the entrance to Gibraltar through the airport and the port and that it is Spain who grants or not visas and residence permits to which they arrive from third countries, the United Kingdom included. The absence in the draft of references to the European border agency (Frontex), whose agents would be in charge of the visible part of the control of passengers, according to the New Year’s Eve agreement, would be one of the points that would have irritated London.
This matter, in particular, would be one of those that will be addressed already in this first round. According to the order of business, this Monday and part of Tuesday both parties will dedicate it to exposing their starting points and clarifying any doubts that may arise. They will be, above all, technical meetings. “It will be a technical meeting of UK officials and Gibraltar officials, on the one hand, and European Union officials, on the other. It is not foreseen that there will be political deliberations in this phase ”, has clarified a note of the Government of Gibraltar. However, the discussion on border controls will also begin.
The Commission’s position on this is clear: Gibraltar may be a matter that really only concerns Spain, but it is an external border of the Union and, therefore, entry controls have to be carried out. If Spain and Gibraltar (and the United Kingdom) do not want there to be a physical border —the Gate—, they accept the “innovative” solution of leaving de facto to the Rock in the Schengen zone as agreed in December, but access must be guarded. And this is where the conflict with London opens, since it does not exactly fit with the concept of Brexit that the Boris Johnson Government manages due to the precedents that it could imply.