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Border chaos as both Gibraltar and Spain tighten immigration checks

Gibraltar on Monday “reluctantly” began applying reciprocal checks on non-UK citizens crossing the border in response to tighter controls implemented by Spain in recent days, triggering chaotic scenes during the morning frontier rush hour.

The stance adopted by Gibraltar and Spain, coupled to Spanish changes in border flow, prompted wide media coverage, even as both governments insisted the problems highlighted the need for a treaty agreement to ensure easy fluidity.

On Monday morning, non-UK travel documents were scanned on an ‘ad hoc’ basis by Gibraltar’s immigration officials, much the same as Spanish authorities are doing to non-EU citizens crossing the border.

While some people were able to cross as normal with light checks, others had the passports or ID cards scanned.

Given the volume of traffic at that time, the queues rapidly built up, with some motorbike riders saying they waited over 30 minutes for a crossing that is usually swift and relatively hassle free.

The delays were exacerbated by a change in traffic arrangements on the Spanish side, with one lane earmarked only for two-wheeled traffic, the other for cars.

As Spanish police officers directed traffic into the two separate lanes, irate commuters honked their horns as they waited and breathed in exhaust fumes from the mass of vehicles queuing.

Against the backdrop of talks for a UK/EU treaty on Gibraltar, Spain had adopted a flexible approach to immigration controls at the border for Gibraltar residents with a red ID cards.

Spain insists nothing has changed in the criteria it is applying and that the passports of Gibraltar residents with red ID cards are not being stamped, as would be required under Schengen rules.

But even though they are not stamping passports, many Gibraltar residents reported that their ID cards had been scanned in recent days.

Last week, the Gibraltar Government said it would monitor the situation and take reciprocal measures if need be. On Monday, it took that step.

“The latest changes implemented by the Spanish authorities at the frontier are unhelpful,” a spokesperson for No.6 Convent Place told the Chronicle.

“They are causing problems, in particular, for the Spanish frontier workers.”

“Gibraltar has today reluctantly started reciprocal, ad hoc, scanning of non-UK citizens documentation."

In Spain, the blame for the delays at the border was laid at the door of the Gibraltar Government, which was accused of not reflecting new arrangements on the Spanish side – said to have been flagged a fortnight ago - to facilitate crossing for people on two-wheeled modes of transport including motorbikes, bicycles and scooters.

Even the Spanish cross-border workers’ association Ascteg, a long-time critic of Spain’s use of the border as a political tool, levelled criticism at the Gibraltar Government, blaming the delays on a “funnel effect” as two-wheeled vehicles entered Gibraltar and re-joined normal traffic, and on Gibraltar’s scanning of some travel documents.

"It's the first time that Gibraltar has to be blamed for the queues and delays,” Ascteg said in a statement, in which it also called for clarity on the situation.

In the evening, Spanish authorities also implemented a new lane for two-wheeled traffic leaving Gibraltar, separating it from the main two vehicle exit lanes.

The morning delays on Monday come against the wider backdrop of uncertainty in Spanish politics following the inconclusive general election in July and subsequent political wrangling as blocs on the left and right negotiate pacts to form government, as well as tension at sea following a recent spate of incidents during August.

They come too amid rife speculation here of the imminent announcement of a general election.

Over the weekend, acting Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares told Europa Press that the tensions were not in line with the "constructive spirit" in which the treaty was being negotiated.

Mr Albares nonetheless expressed hope that an agreement could be finalised “as soon as possible”.

On Monday in Cadiz, Mr Albares repeated that sentiment and said the latest developments underscored the need for a treaty, echoing the words of Chief Minister Fabian Picardo in an interview with the Chronicle in which said the tensions during August “simply underline the need to resolve matters”.

“Our negotiating partners have shown intelligence and commitment to resolving all issues,” Mr Picardo told the Chronicle.

“The final push will, I am confident, get us over the line.”

Speaking on the sidelines of an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers organised by the Spanish EU presidency in Cadiz, Mr Albares said the delays were caused by an infrastructure imbalance after Spain implemented the lane for two-wheeled vehicles.

“Gibraltar had been aware for some days now of this measure, which was precisely to facilitate the flow of cross-border workers,” Mr Albares said.

“What we want is greater fluidity in the crossing between Gibraltar and the Campo de Gibraltar.”

“The necessary infrastructure on the Gibraltar side has not been implemented to allow for that two-wheeled flow, and that’s what’s created the bottleneck.”

But he added: “I think all these circumstances, just like many others we have witnessed in August, demonstrate even more the need to reach that agreement between Spain and the UK on Gibraltar, to create that area of shared prosperity between Gibraltar and the Campo de Gibraltar and resolve situations that are clearly absurd.”

Resolving these issues, he said, would be “mutually beneficial”.

But while the underlying sentiments may be similar on either side of the frontier, the areas of friction are clear too.

Mr Picardo left no doubt Gibraltar would reciprocate any change in immigration controls implemented by Spain, a position he reiterated in an interview with GBC on Monday.

As well as commencing ‘ad hoc’ scanning of non-UK travel documents, the Chief Minister said Gibraltar’s immigration officials were also preparing to implement separate channels for UK and non-UK nationals, mirroring arrangements on the Spanish side.

“Obviously one lane will move faster in one jurisdiction and the other will move fast in the other jurisdiction,” he told GBC.

“That’s reciprocity and that’s what we have to do.”

“I’m afraid there’s no way out of that principle other than – as I hope we will manage to do – to either stand down back to the interim position we were holding before, or to finalise this treaty negotiation and have the fluidity that we all hope, and we all continue to say, is what we think is best for all people in the region and can lead to greater prosperity for Gibraltar and for the region.”

Mr Picardo said too that while much of the disruption was down to different logistical arrangements at the border coupled to volume, he nonetheless detected a political strand to the developments.

“What we’re seeing here, I don’t think is purely political,” he said.

“But you won’t persuade any Gibraltarian, let alone me, that there isn’t a political strand to what we’re seeing.”

He called for all sides to “take a step back” to restore normality at the frontier and return to the good will that has underpinned the treaty negotiations since Gibraltar left the EU alongside the UK following the Brexit vote.

“But that good faith has to be demonstrated on the ground,” he added.

“Gibraltar has not set up any new controls, we have only reciprocated the controls that we have seen being carried out on our own citizens.”

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