‘Flexibility of mindset’ and ‘absolute determination to succeed' underpin treaty talks, UK ambassador says
Hugh Elliott, the UK Ambassador to Spain, on Thursday underscored the “flexibility of mindset” underpinning the negotiation for a UK/EU treaty on Gibraltar, stressing the UK Government’s “determination” to secure a deal “of benefit to absolutely everybody”.
In an interview with the Chronicle during a visit to Gibraltar and the Campo, Mr Elliott said there were still complex areas of difference between the two sides even after 10 formal rounds of negotiation and constant work in between.
But he insisted there remained shared purpose and goodwill to secure agreement at a time when the UK and Spain, together with other European and Nato partners, were presenting a joint front on major challenges such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, energy security and illegal migration.
Mr Elliott, who met with the Governor, Vice Admiral Sir David Steel, and Chief Minister Fabian Picardo while in Gibraltar, was scheduled on Thursday to meet Campo mayors including La Linea’s Juan Franco, the PSOE’s Juan Carlos Ruiz Boix in San Roque, and the Partido Popular mayor of Algeciras, Jose Ignacio Landaluce.
He highlighted the UK’s appreciation “for the tremendous effort” that Spain, alongside the UK, Gibraltar and the EU, had put into the negotiation, and their shared desire for a successful outcome.
“My main message is going to be that the UK Government is absolutely determined to do our utmost to support Gibraltar in reaching a solution here,” he told the Chronicle, ahead of his meetings in the Campo.
“My job as the UK ambassador to Spain is simply to explain the UK’s position at this stage in the negotiations, and that’s what I'm doing and that’s what I'll be doing here.”
“That objective is to have fluid movement across the border and as everybody knows, that’s a complex thing to deliver because it means moving the border controls to the port and airport and defining exactly what happens in those areas.”
“Those are the things that we’re working on.”
“We have brought positions much closer together and we’re continuing to work for that agreement.”
Mr Elliott was speaking two days after UK/EU negotiators completed the tenth formal round of talks in London, with another round due to take place in the run-up to Christmas.
He would not be drawn on any of the detail of the discussions, reflecting a joint policy of discretion that all sides have tried to stick to from the outset.
That approach appeared to be dented at the weekend after Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares told El Pais that Spain, as part of any treaty, wanted the physical presence of Spanish law enforcement officers at the airport and port here to oversee Schengen border checks on behalf of the EU.
But while those statements raised eyebrows – the issue is a red line for Gibraltar and the UK, and practical immigration arrangements remain under negotiation – Mr Elliott, unsurprisingly perhaps, would not be drawn on them.
“First of all, if there weren't differences, we would have finished,” he said.
“So, by definition, there are still differences which we're working hard to iron out.”
“Secondly, I think at this stage in the negotiations it's very important not to go into lots of detail about this.”
“The Chief Minister has been completely clear that the agreement needs to be acceptable to Gibraltarians, that's absolutely understood, and I don't think I need to say any more about that.”
NO ABSOLUTE DEADLINE
As he spoke to the Chronicle in The Convent on Thursday morning, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was visiting the Cepsa facilities in the Campo, where the company announced a three-billion-euro investment to produce green hydrogen in San Roque and Huelva.
There had been wide expectation in the Spanish media that Mr Sanchez would use the occasion to comment on the Gibraltar talks.
In the event though, the Spanish Prime Minister opted for discretion and said nothing about the negotiation during his address to guests at the Cepsa event. He also avoided taking any questions from some 50 journalists gathered there.
In Gibraltar, Mr Elliott said the treaty sought to achieve a bespoke arrangement that was innovative and, as a result, extremely complex.
In order to make it succeed, each side in the negotiation had adopted a flexible approach while maintaining deep positions rooted in history.
“In general, in a complex negotiation where, as we all know, the aim is to build something of benefit to absolutely everybody, that means by definition it's something different and something a little bit novel,” he said.
“In order to put that in place, we need to think about things in slightly different ways.”
“That's almost inherent in the nature of this negotiation.”
“What I have been particularly struck by has been the really positive spirit, flexible spirit actually, in which all parties - Spain, the Government of Gibraltar and the UK Government - have approached this negotiation.”
“It's a flexibility of mindset in that sense [and] it's something I've observed throughout these negotiations.”
“I know it can sound a bit blasé, but it's not a given, the amount of work and the amount of goodwill from all parties that's gone into that, and I think that’s something that is a tremendous asset in these negotiations.”
The ambassador said all sides wanted to complete the process as soon as possible.
But he played down any suggestion of December 31 as a cut-off date, one way or another.
“I haven't heard anybody put absolute deadlines down,” he said.
“What I have heard is a very strongly shared willingness to resolve this as soon as we can.”
And while the UK and Gibraltar were working “shoulder to shoulder” to secure a deal, he acknowledged too that it was “prudent and sensible” to prepare contingencies in the event of a ‘no deal’ scenario, adding the UK Government “fully supports” Gibraltar in those efforts.
“But it is not our objective,” he stressed.
“Our objective is to get the deal.”
Asked whether defence issues were a factor in the negotiation, Mr Elliott highlighted the close relationship between the UK and Spain in this area, both bilaterally and under the Nato umbrella.
In parallel to the treaty negotiation, the UK and Spain are holding bilateral talks aimed at strengthening their cooperation on security and defence, which he said was already “very broad and deep” in “multiple areas”.
But he was clear that military issues were not on the table in the treaty talks.
“We've been talking to the EU about a lot of things in this treaty,” he said.
“Defence has not been one of those.”
The wider context of the treaty negotiation was evidenced by Mr Elliott’s itinerary, which earlier this week took him to Cadiz to visit shipyards operated by Spanish state-owned shipbuilder Navantia.
Navantia is part of a consortium that includes UK shipyards and recently won a £1.6bn contract from the UK Government to build three support ships for the Royal Navy.
The Spanish-led consortium saw off a bid from an all-British team and the decision to award it the contract caused controversy in the UK.
Despite this, Mr Elliott said the project represented “a wonderful example” of Anglo-Spanish bilateral cooperation that would deliver benefits all round.
But he stressed there was no direct link or leverage between the award of the shipbuilding contract to the Spanish-led consortium and the treaty negotiation.
“There is no link between the two, none at all,” he said.
As he discussed the treaty negotiation with this newspaper in The Convent drawing room, Mr Elliott was carefully monitoring news from Madrid, where Spanish police have launched an investigation after an incendiary device exploded at Ukraine’s embassy in the Spanish capital earlier this week.
On Thursday, news reports said the investigation was focused too on four more devices sent to the Prime Minister, the defence ministry, an arms company that makes rocket launchers donated to Kyiv, and a military airbase near the Spanish capital.
Those developments are far removed from the negotiation that has dominated the political landscape in Gibraltar for the past two years, but they offer a reminder of the far broader, tumultuous international context in which the discussions about the Rock’s post-Brexit future are taking place.
That landscape includes the often-strained relationship between the UK and the EU since the 2016 Brexit referendum, although there are signs of a thaw in recent weeks since Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took office.
“The British Government has been very clear, most recently stated by the Prime Minister [Rishi Sunak]...that our relationship with our European partners is really important to us,” Mr Elliott said, highlighting in particular the common front against the “brutal Russian invasion”.
He said a prime objective of that relationship, not just with the EU but with Nato too, was “unity” in support of Ukraine as it combated “that really horrifying reality resulting from the Russian invasion”.
“I think therefore that what we are seeing is all the things that we have in common,” he said.
“We've left the European Union, we have not left Europe.”
“We have lots in common in terms of objectives, in terms of values, in terms of economic and other interests.”
Against that wider backdrop, “obviously, if we reach a solution in our negotiations with the EU here, that can only be a good thing, another example of what unites us," he added.
“What we want is for this to be something that unites us, not that divides us.”