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Opinion & Analysis

A formula that can work for all

In analysing the political framework agreement reached on New Year’s Eve for Gibraltar’s future relationship with the European Union, it is worth considering as a starting point what the alternative would have been. For the avoidance of doubt, look at the photograph above.

It was taken in 2017 after the Schengen member states changed their rules to require document checks against databases. Spain trialled the measures for a few hours, to see how it would implement the change at a border crossed daily by thousands of people in each direction.

The result was chaos and lengthy queues that disrupted the lives of everyday citizens going about their business. Gibraltar’s membership of the EU allowed Spain leeway not to continue applying the rules strictly, but the episode offers a stark reminder of what might have been on January 1.

Outside the EU without an agreement on mobility, that is what we would have faced. The knock-on impact on economies and communities either side of the border is as obvious as it would have been devastating.

The in-principle agreement announced on New Year’s Eve paves the way for a treaty between the UK and the EU that will allow for the maximum fluidity for people across the border, potentially goods too. There is still much to be negotiated and agreed and it is important to temper expectation. But last Thursday’s announcement is a landmark step.

If it comes to fruition, a treaty will mean the territory of Gibraltar becoming part of the Schengen area, with the port and airport becoming external frontiers of the EU. The border with Spain as we know it today will disappear, with immigration checks replaced by technology, including facial recognition cameras to monitor and control those crossing.

The initial agreement has only been possible because Spain, as the Schengen member state tasked by the EU to take the lead on any matter relating to Gibraltar and the bloc, accepted Gibraltar’s request to seek a Schengen-style arrangement for the Rock. In exchange, Spain will be the Schengen member state responsible for the application of Schengen rules in Gibraltar.

That oversight responsibility will be exercised remotely by Spain, with officers from Frontex – the European Borders and Coastguard Agency – working on the ground in the airport and port alongside Gibraltar’s Borders and Coastguard Agency. It will be BCA officers who will conduct the first checks on anyone arriving on the Rock.

Over the weekend, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said Spain would have “the last say” on who could enter Gibraltar. Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, unsurprisingly, offered a different interpretation, saying entry to the Rock would be a matter “exclusively” for the BCA. Each was speaking to their own domestic audience. To some degree, they were both correct.

There is no denying that Spain will have a say at the port and airport over who is allowed into the Schengen zone having first entered Gibraltar through BCA immigration points. But that is a role that Spain will conduct as the guarantor for the other members of the Schengen accord. It will be doing so with its Schengen hat on, not in the exercise of its age-old aspirations over the Rock. It is the price we will accept in order to guarantee not just frontier fluidity vital to our economy, but to gain the right too to move freely around the 27 member states and unlock incredible economic opportunity.

Mr Picardo is clear that the framework agreement does not cross Gibraltar’s red lines on sovereignty, jurisdiction and control. That is not just his opinion, but that of his entire cabinet, which reviewed the negotiations at each stage of the process. Sir Joe Bossano, a lifelong defender of Gibraltar’s British sovereignty and this community’s right to self-determination, said ministers decided at each stage whether to continue or “pull the plug” if red lines were crossed. The plug was never pulled.

Additionally, the Attorney General, Michael Llamas, QC, gave a written legal opinion that the framework agreement was safe. The UK Government was satisfied too. Gibraltar’s sovereignty “is safeguarded”, UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said last week.

Gibraltar’s opposition parties have cautiously welcomed the agreement but rightly want to see the detail of the text once it is finalised. Their concern is that any final deal must not overstep the Rock’s established red lines. The treaty will be negotiated in the coming months and all sides will be alert to their core positions. The devil, to paraphrase a cliché, will be in each comma, each full stop.

In the meantime though, it is important to realise what has been achieved with this initial agreement. It sets the stage for a positive paradigm shift in Gibraltar’s relationship with its nearest neighbour. For all Spain’s talk of bilateralism, this was a negotiation in which Gibraltar played a decisive role in order to reach consensus. No one understands our situation better than we ourselves. And we are able to communicate it both in fluent English and Spanish. Don’t underestimate the value and importance of that in order to bridge gaps.

Ironically perhaps, it was the political convulsion of Brexit that upended years of status quo to allow for dialogue toward a creative solution that protected and strengthened our deep links to the UK, even while opening the door to better and closer relations with Spain and the EU beyond. Over months of tortuous talks, negotiators from the three governments were able to build trust that enabled them to edge ever closer to common positions.

By avoiding the immediate nightmare scenario of a hard Brexit, the agreement protects Gibraltar’s British sovereignty even at a time when the UK is moving in a different direction to that which our geographical reality requires us to take. For the UK, Brexit was about ‘taking back control’ including over its borders. For us, Brexit will be about greater fluidity with the European landmass to which we are attached, taking advantage of an opportunity to become part of the Schengen area and enjoy the protections that the EU enforces at its own external borders. Without it, the economic hit this community was facing risked unleashing a toxic blame game that could have strained our close relationship with the UK, not to mention our neighbours. Brexit was not something of our making, after all, and few of us voted for it.

Speaking on GBC this weekend, former Chief Minister Sir Peter Caruana said he believed the framework agreement allowed sufficient political space to find a formula that worked for everyone and protected Gibraltar’s red lines. He urged the community to give the Gibraltar Government the space and trust to get there.

It is an important message to bear in mind in the coming weeks and months, always conscious of the fact that the alternative is not a theoretical premise. For the avoidance of doubt, look at the photograph above.