Brexit minister signals UK commitment on sovereignty, economy and border during Rock visit
Britain will seek to build on Gibraltar’s existing access to the UK market for financial services and will push for a “sensible arrangement” to ensure fluidity at the border, the UK Government’s junior Brexit minister said yesterday during a visit to the Rock.
Robin Walker, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, also reaffirmed Britain’s double-lock sovereignty commitment to Gibraltar and said the Rock’s future relationship with the EU would form part of the UK’s wider Brexit negotiations.
“The UK deeply values British sovereignty over Gibraltar and is fully committed to promoting the interests of Gibraltar and the wishes of Gibraltarians,” he said.
“I would like to emphasise that the United Kingdom will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes.”
“Furthermore, the United Kingdom will not enter into any process of sovereignty negotiations for which Gibraltar is not content.”
Speaking to reporters during a press conference at No.6 Convent Place, Mr Walker left no doubt that the UK Government is at odds with Spain on a core issue when it comes to Brexit and Gibraltar.
Spain has repeatedly insisted that once Prime Minister Theresa May triggers Article 50 and begins the formal process of withdrawal, Gibraltar becomes a bilateral issue between London and Madrid. But that is not a view the UK shares.
“I think we need to be clear that in these negotiations we are talking to the European institutions and indeed the 27 member states, of which Spain is one,” he said, when asked how the UK would approach the discussion over Gibraltar.
“We will need to have contact at every level to make sure that the process is successful.”
Mr Walker was speaking during a lightning visit to Gibraltar, his first as a minister from the UK’s new Department for Exiting the European Union.
He was due to have flown into Gibraltar from London on Wednesday evening but was diverted to Málaga due to bad weather, leaving him no option but to travel the final stretch overland.
That gave him first-hand experience of how important the land border with Spain is to Gibraltar’s economy.
“There is nothing like seeing it for yourself,” he told reporters.
“While it’s never ideal to have a flight delayed or changed, actually the opportunity to come and see this directly has certainly brought that home to me and it's something that I will take back into our discussions in Westminster and more broadly.”
During his time on the Rock Mr Walker held a working meeting with government ministers and officials, and also met opposition politicians and labour representatives.
He also attended a reception at the Garrison Library where he met representatives from across the Gibraltarian community to hear their concerns about Gibraltar’s future outside the EU.
One concern flagged repeatedly was frontier fluidity, which the Gibraltar Government has identified as the most serious single issue arising from Brexit amid concerns Spain could tighten controls once the UK leaves the EU.
“When it comes to the border, I think as we move forward in the negotiations what we need to focus on is the mutual interest in reaching a sensible arrangement,” Mr Walker said yesterday.
“It's very clear that Gibraltar's huge economic success brings enormous benefits to Andalucia and to Spain more generally.”
“Maintaining the functioning of the border is in the interests of both sides in this negotiation.”
Mr Walker was also firm on his government’s commitment to maintaining Gibraltar’s access to the UK market for financial services.
The Gibraltar Government says 90% of the Rock’s trade in financial services is with the UK, making it a vital element of the territory’s economic stability.
“When it comes to financial services, there are strong mechanisms already underpinning Gibraltar's access to the UK market which are enshrined in UK law,” Mr Walker said.
“It's our intention to maintain Gibraltar's current access to the UK market in financial services and we're examining together where we can broaden our economic cooperation and increase market access.”
“We will also take into account the priorities of Gibraltar and the other overseas territories as the United Kingdom works to establish new trade and investment agreements with the wider world.”
Mr Walker in particular highlighted possible trade opportunities with other Commonwealth countries, adding: “I think there are some exciting opportunities in that space.”
Chief Minister Fabian Picardo described Mr Walker as “a good friend of Gibraltar” and thanked him for taking the time to visit Gibraltar just days before Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to trigger Article 50 and begin the formal Brexit process.
Mr Picardo highlighted in particular the assurance of continued access to the UK market and said the visit underlined the close working relationship that existed between the governments of Gibraltar and the UK.
“It is a clear reflection of the real action that there is behind the pledge that Gibraltar will be fully involved in the process of exiting the European Union,” he said, adding that this relationship would continue once the formal negotiations began.
The Chief Minister left no doubt that the months ahead would prove challenging, but remained bullish about Gibraltar’s prospects.
“It would be unreal to suggest that the next 24 months would be anything other than challenging,” Mr Picardo said.
“But we are confident that working closely with the UK, we will be able to ensure the continued, unaffected stability of our economy the continued prosperity of our nation.”
“Above all, I welcome that our right to self-determination and our continued British sovereignty remain a sacrosanct commitment entirely unaffected by the result of the referendum last year.”