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Europe Minister highlights ‘fresh impetus’ to wrap up Gib treaty

Archive image of Europe Minister Leo Docherty during an interview with the Chronicle in Gibraltar. Photo by Johnny Bugeja

The UK Government is “acutely conscious” of the importance of a fluid border to the Rock’s economy and to thousands of workers in neighbouring Spain, Leo Docherty, the Minister for Europe, said on Tuesday, adding it was “in everyone’s interests” to get negotiations on a UK/EU treaty for Gibraltar “wrapped up” by the end of the year.

Speaking during a visit to Gibraltar, Mr Docherty acknowledged differences yet to be resolved in the treaty talks but expressed optimism that agreement was possible and that all sides were keen to successfully conclude the negotiation.

He underscored too the UK Government’s “100% commitment” to the sovereignty double-lock, under which there will be no discussion or change to Gibraltar’s British sovereignty against the wishes of the Gibraltarians.

“My judgement is that there must be sort of ‘win, win’ situation,” Mr Docherty told the Chronicle during an interview in The Convent on Tuesday morning.

“There are some 9,000 [Spanish] people who come from Spain into Gibraltar every day to work in really good jobs here.”

“That’s in their interests and it’s also in the interests of Gibraltar.”

“The fantastic economic model that you have built here depends on that symbiotic relationship and Gibraltar’s unique position.”

“It seems entirely sensible that everyone collectively – UK, Gibraltar and Spain – would want that to continue.”

“Negotiations are always difficult and I certainly wouldn’t want to get into the details.”

“But in broad strokes, of course there’s positioning and there’s uncertainty, but I think fundamentally there is a landing ground where it can work for both sides.”

“Clearly what we’re acutely conscious of is the inconvenience that people might face at the frontier and the impact that could have on people and families.”

“We want people to have certainty, basically, and I remain optimistic.”

“We would never do anything that undermines Gibraltar’s sovereignty, but I think for economic reasons first and foremost, there are compelling reasons to think that a settlement can be arrived at.”

Mr Docherty landed in Gibraltar just a day after attending the annual British Spanish Tertulias forum in Oxford, an event that brings together MPs, business people, academics and artists to discuss topical issues.

He was also present at a meeting between UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and his Spanish counterpart, Jose Manuel Albares, on the sidelines of that forum, during which the two foreign ministers discussed a range of issues including the Gibraltar negotiation.

Mr Docherty was accompanied on his trip to Gibraltar by key UK officials in the negotiation with the EU, including Julian Braithwaite, the Director General for Europe at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, the UK’s ambassador to the EU who has been involved on Brexit and Gibraltar issues since 2016.

The minister and his officials met with Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia and Attorney General Michael Llamas over dinner on Wednesday night to discuss the latest developments on the treaty talks.

Earlier in the day he visited the air terminal and the border to see at first hand the current arrangements and better understand how these might change if a treaty is agreed.

Negotiators from the UK – with Gibraltar – and the EU concluded the ninth formal round in London last week, almost a year to the day since the process began in October 2021.

The UK, Gibraltar and Spain have repeatedly signalled their desire to conclude an agreement that ensures continued border fluidity as the key to unlocking shared cross-border prosperity after Brexit.

But few details have been made public as to the content of any agreement and, despite the positive messaging, officials have also acknowledged that differences remain.

On Tuesday, Mr Docherty said external factors such as the war in Ukraine, which has placed the UK and EU governments under immense pressure as they coordinate their response, and the Northern Ireland protocol, which has strained UK-EU relations, should not impact progress in the Gibraltar negotiation.

In fact, Mr Docherty said, they could have the opposite effect, as could the new administration in London and a looming general election in Spain next year.

“I would say they’d be accelerant factors,” he said, adding this issue was discussed during the Tertulias meeting in Oxford at the weekend.

“They agreed that the cooperation between UK-Spain because of our collective response to Ukraine is very, very deep.”

“I think that kind of reminds us all that we need to get on with each other and settle other bilateral issues more quickly than not.”

“So the geo-political context of the challenge from the east is one that would accelerate things rather than put a brake on them.”

Even so, Mr Docherty was reluctant to be drawn on any timescale for conclusion of the negotiation on Gibraltar.

“I hope it will be done by the end of the year,” he told the Chronicle.

“There are various accelerant factors, for example domestic politics in Spain not least [a reference to the Spanish general election due next year].”

“I think that’s important to bear in mind.”

“We’ve now got a new administration in the UK, so I think there’s a strong appetite from our side to get it concluded.”

“So I hope that because of fresh impetus from the UK and a desire from the Spanish side to get it concluded, with a following wind it would be marvellous to have it done by the end of the year.”

“But politicians have learnt by bitter experience to under-promise and over-deliver and never, ever promise anything with regards to things being done by Christmas.”

“It would be in everyone’s interests, economically, politically, and I’ll be going to Madrid sometime soon after this to do whatever I can to keep pushing the process on.”

“It would be good for all sides to get this wrapped up.”

Mr Docherty, a former soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and was a defence minister prior to his latest role, also visited the Royal Navy’s Gibraltar Squadron during his trip to the Rock.

He told the Chronicle “I really do understand” the role of the UK military in Gibraltar and the Rock’s “hugely valuable” strategic importance.

And he played down speculation that disagreement between the UK and Spain on Gibraltar’s military role was impacting the negotiation on the treaty.

Military issues do not form part of the treaty discussion but the UK and Spain have been engaged in separate bilateral talks on defence cooperation since last year.

“The context of course is that Spain and the UK are deep NATO allies and have a very, very close military relationship,” Mr Docherty told the Chronicle.

But he acknowledged too that despite that close defence partnership, there was friction over Gibraltar.

Mr Docherty said it was “remarkable” that there was not closer cooperation between the UK and Spain in this region.

“Perhaps it would be advantageous if two NATO allies coordinated better, but that of course is not part of the [treaty] negotiation,” he said.

Pressed on whether progress on the bilateral conversation on defence issues between the UK and Spain was acting as a brake on the Gibraltar treaty negotiation, Mr Docherty replied: “No, not at all.”

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