After Madrid meeting, positive messaging laced with politics in treaty ‘endgame’
There were clear signs on Friday that the UK and the EU could be edging towards agreement on a treaty for the Rock’s post-Brexit relations with the bloc, with Gibraltar, the UK and Spain all reaffirming their desire to secure a deal as soon as possible, even though complex differences remain to be bridged as the negotiation enters the “endgame”.
In Madrid, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs issued a lengthy statement after Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares met with Campo mayors and authorities, setting out aspirations that the EU was seeking from any treaty.
In Gibraltar, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo addressed Parliament and, while not delving into detail, also sketched out the goals that both Gibraltar and the UK are hoping to achieve.
Each side also set out its red lines on the core issue of sovereignty, while insisting common ground was possible.
They signalled there are still gaps in key areas that will be difficult to resolve, with negotiators due to meet again in London for another formal round on Monday and Tuesday next week.
But despite the complexity of reaching agreement on principles before moving to the stage where a treaty text can be drafted, the underlying optimism was shared by all sides.
In a statement issued after the Madrid meeting, the Spanish Ministry for Foreign Affairs said the latest EU proposal “…contains very reasonable technical and practical solutions that are necessary to build an area of shared prosperity respectful of our respective legal positions.”
Mr Albares told the mayors he was “confident and hopeful” that the negotiations would conclude in a “satisfactory agreement as soon as possible”.
“The Spanish Government does not want a no deal scenario, but it must be remembered that, on the one side, Brexit is a British decision and, on the other, the commitment of both parties is needed in order to sign an agreement,” the statement from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs added.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Mr Albares underlined that message.
"Spain and the EU are ready," he said.
"Now it’s for the UK to say whether they’re ready to reach an agreement."
"What is clear is that we cannot stay in this situation indefinitely [and] I think the citizens of the Campo as well as those in Gibraltar have the right to more certainty."
In Gibraltar, Mr Picardo welcomed the Spanish desire to secure a deal.
“We are all on the same page in this objective,” he said.
“There are ways to achieve that objective now by concluding the negotiation successfully and with all sides’ relevant, long-standing positions being preserved.”
“These options are on the table and can be pursued to a successful conclusion for all parties.”
“I am therefore confident that we will be able to find the route now to fashion our respective positions around agreement.”
Mr Picardo said that while Gibraltar and the UK wanted a deal, they continued to prepare “with heavy heart” for the “unlikely but possible eventuality” of a non-negotiated outcome.
“My key objective and the key objective of the Government is to achieve a safe and secure agreement for our people which benefits us and benefits the people around us also,” he said.
“We are committed to a win-win outcome in which no one loses and no one has to concede on the issues we consider fundamental, through compromise in areas we each consider we can compromise on, and that works for the UK and the EU as the high contracting parties.”
“I am convinced we can achieve this.”
He praised the UK for the “massive resources” it had provided to the negotiation, and said the same too about Spain and the European Union, which he said had worked to understand Gibraltar’s positions and how it was proposing to interface with EU law in a way that assured them of the integrity of the EU legal framework.
And he added: “This has not been easy and what is left is not easy either, but we remain committed to a positive outcome.”
“A positive outcome can now be achieved. A positive outcome must now be the result.”
The UK Government also signalled optimism after the latest exchanges, though it made clear too that work remained to be done and that the UK, like Gibraltar, would not budge on anything that touched on Gibraltar’s British sovereignty.
“Both the UK and EU have presented text throughout the negotiations,” a spokesman for the UK Government told the Chronicle.
“We are working intensively to seek agreement on text that respects the balance of the December 2020 Political Framework.”
“We are confident that with flexibility on all sides a deal can deliver for the whole region.”
“The UK has been clear we will not agree to anything which compromises UK sovereignty.”
The differences between the two sides in the negotiation were evident even in the use of language.
Spain said the EU had presented “a global proposal” for an agreement. The UK and Gibraltar insisted there was no overall text, though there were different proposals on the table from each side.
In its statement, the Spanish Ministry for Foreign Affairs broadly reflected the aims set out in the New Year’s Eve framework agreement, which sought to establish a common travel area between Gibraltar and the Schengen area, effectively suppressing immigration controls at the border.
The framework agreement envisaged a four-year implementation period during which Spain would have responsibility for Schengen checks on the Rock, but Frontex officers would carry out the work on the ground.
But Madrid’s statement, which made no mention of Frontex, also shed some light on Spain and the EU’s aspirations in other areas that have not previously been highlighted in public debate.
“The text presented to the United Kingdom is a global proposal that includes measures on the mobility of persons, with the objective of removing the [border] fence and guaranteeing the fluidity in the movement of people,” the statement said.
“That requires that Spain controls Gibraltar’s external frontiers on Schengen’s behalf and that, to that end, is able to exercise certain functions and competencies necessary to protect the integrity and security of the Schengen space.”
“The Spanish proposal also contemplates the protection and improvement the right of workers’ and those who benefit from social security payments in Gibraltar.”
The Spanish ministry said that on customs, the proposal envisaged guaranteeing the free movement of goods between the EU and Gibraltar, “without any increase in risks for the internal EU market, in particular for economic operators in the area in terms of unfair competition or illicit traffic such as tobacco”.
“As with the movement of people, this will require that Spain, in the EU’s name, exercise functions to control and protect the internal market as customs controls between Spain and Gibraltar disappear.”
“Conditions for fair competition will be preserved with a view that economic operators in Gibraltar compete on similar conditions to the rest of the economic operators in the EU and, very specifically, in the Campo de Gibraltar.”
“The text that is already in the hands of the United Kingdom also envisages measures to fight against money laundering and measures to guarantee high standards of environmental protection and nuclear safety, with a view to establishing maximum guarantees in the face of potential risks of environmental harm that impact the entire area, as well as avoiding unfair economic competition and [providing] a financial mechanism for employment and training programmes in the area.”
The Spanish statement said Spain’s position on “sovereignty and jurisdiction” in relation to Gibraltar “remains unaltered”.
“Neither a future agreement, or any action or measure taken in its application or as a result of it, implies any renunciation or modification whatsoever of the Spanish position in respect of sovereignty and jurisdiction in relation to Gibraltar,” the statement said.
In Parliament in Gibraltar, Keith Azopardi, the Leader of the Opposition, said some of the language in the Spanish statement was “provocative” and suggested proposals that might cross Gibraltar’s red lines.
But he acknowledged too that this was a “political statement” that had not legal effect on an ongoing negotiation, suggesting it could be the Spanish Government “upping the ante” in the final stages.
He said the Opposition supported the Gibraltar Government in its effort to secure a safe and beneficial deal for Gibraltar, and that it would stand with the government in the interests of the community if the outcome was no deal.
Responding to Mr Azopardi, the Chief Minister cautioned against reading too much into public statements that could be politically driven.
“I think that one of the things we need to keep in mind is that as we come towards the end game of the negotiation, the parties are obviously going to start to up the ante a little for the purposes of finalising the negotiation in a way that they might consider more or less advantageous to them and the other side respectively,” he said.
“And the public process of engagement is obviously going to be more relevant in the end game.”
In his statement, Mr Picardo said the UK and Gibraltar had also presented texts in the negotiation.
“Our proposals provide for the removal of trade barriers and the protection of the integrity of the Single Market in a manner that would not compromise our fiscal or wider sovereignty concerns,” he said.
“Our proposals also address the issue of personal rights of fluidity across the frontier.”
“These are achieved in keeping with the provisions already agreed between us in 2020 and taking into consideration concerns of the EU in respect of the protection of the integrity of the Schengen Area.”
“We have also identified areas for enhanced cooperation for mutual benefit.”
“All of these are clearly drivers for potentially huge economic growth for the whole region driven principally by Gibraltar and its people as well as by the municipalities around us and the people who live around Gibraltar.”
“Our proposals, therefore, also, of course, provide for cross frontier workers to continue to enjoy equal treatment with resident workers in respect of in-work benefits.”
“Additionally the thrust of this growth is delivered through the engine of these new arrangements and the support of the European Union and the United Kingdom through this potential treaty.”
POSITIONS AND LEVERS
Mr Picardo said the Spanish statement was a matter for the Spanish Government, adding he believed maintaining the integrity of the talks was vital to ensure their success and to balance all the different interests and positions of the parties involved.
“And those are not just the positions of Gibraltar and Spain on issues related to sovereignty, jurisdiction and control,” he said.
“The European Union here has an important stake. They are the high contracting party and they see issues which relates to the integrity of the single market, the integrity of the Schengen area.”
“The United Kingdom has political issues also in play and so we need to ensure that all parties are satisfied that they have not been required to concede on issues that they consider fundamental.”
“The issues that we consider fundamental, of course, are sovereignty, jurisdiction and control, and then the other issues which relate to the prosperity and the levers of prosperity.”
“And nobody should want us to compromise in respect of the levers of prosperity, because, of course, Gibraltar will be creating prosperity if there is a successful treaty that emerges, and therefore we must have those levers of prosperity to continue to produce prosperity for all parties.”
And while he resisted being drawn on the content of the Spanish statement or the detail of the talks, Mr Picardo reflected on the UK/Gibraltar position in respect of one of the trickiest issues, namely immigration controls in the event of a deal.
In doing so, he was both robust and nuanced in his explanation, pointing to the difficult compromise that was being sought to protect each side’s red lines.
“There is no question of anybody controlling Gibraltar's frontiers other than Gibraltar,” the Chief Minister said.
“There is absolutely nothing to indicate that the United Kingdom or Gibraltar would be prepared to concede that anybody should control Gibraltar's frontiers other than Gibraltar.”
“We will never concede that.”
But he added: “There is nothing to suggest that Gibraltar seeks to control the Schengen frontier.”
“The Schengen parties would not concede that anybody should have control over the Schengen frontier other than a Schengen high contracting party or an emanation of the European Union.”
“That led us to the New Year's Eve agreement and the careful balancing act that was provided for in that framework.”
And he later added: “We do think it is possible to accommodate the concerns of the European Union in this respect, and we do think that our proposals do that.”
Mr Picardo underscored too that Gibraltar’s British sovereignty was not a factor in the negotiation and was in any event protected by the UK’s double-lock commitment.
“This is not a negotiation with Spain,” he said.
“It is a negotiation between the United Kingdom and the European Union.”
“And I can give [Mr Azopardi] the confidence that in all of the discussions we have had and have attended, the issue of sovereignty has not been raised by the European Union.”
“The issue of status has not been raised by the European Union.”
“And I will never sit down with anyone to negotiate the sovereignty of Gibraltar.”
“The sovereignty of Gibraltar is of the people of Gibraltar only. It is not negotiable.”
He said his government would guard against the ingredients of sovereignty, jurisdiction and control “percolating” into any agreement on immigration and the movement of goods.
“And we will only present an agreement if we are satisfied that it is safe and secure in those respects and of course, beneficial also,” he said.