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In parliamentary response, Spain sheds light on thorny treaty issue

The Spanish Government has explained in stark detail how it believes Schengen controls in Gibraltar should operate if a treaty is agreed, putting a spotlight on one of the gaps that still needs to be bridged if a deal is to be reached.

In response to a question from the Partido Popular in the Spanish senate, the Spanish Government said it expected armed uniformed officers of the Policia Nacional to play a direct role in implementing Schengen immigration controls at Gibraltar’s airport and maritime entry points.

The UK and Gibraltar governments have from the outset ruled out the presence of uniformed Spanish officers on the ground in Gibraltar as part of any treaty.

Although the parliamentary response does not make this clear, the details it sets out are, in effect, Spain’s negotiating position, the Chronicle understands.

The level of detail in the Spanish Government’s response to the PP question has raised eyebrows given the tight lid kept on the substance of discussions to date.

“This is not agreed,” a spokesperson for the Gibraltar Government told the Chronicle.

Publication of the parliamentary response came just days after the second high-level meeting in Brussels between the Foreign Ministers of Spain and the UK, José Manuel Albares and Lord David Cameron, along with the Vice President of the European Commission Maros Sefcovic and Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.

In a joint communique after the seven-hour meeting, all four parties confirmed “important breakthroughs” but no agreement yet. They said they were committed to sealing a deal.

Negotiators have repeatedly refused to disclose details of any remaining areas of disagreement but the response in the Spanish senate this week points to ‘boots on the ground’ still being an issue.

The New Year’s Eve framework agreement on which the treaty negotiation is based envisaged the creation of a common travel area between Gibraltar and the Schengen zone.

In order to achieve that, Schengen immigration controls would be carried out at Gibraltar Airport and the port, effectively eliminating the need for subsequent checks at the border with Spain.

Once inside Gibraltar, people would be able to enter Spain and the Schengen zone freely, and vice versa.

But putting that idea into practice has proved difficult, particularly against the backdrop of Spain’s longstanding sovereignty aspirations over the Rock.

The solution was to enlist the assistance of Frontex, the EU’s immigration force.

The New Year’s Eve framework agreement envisaged that Spain, as the neighbouring country, would take responsibility on behalf of the EU for Schengen immigration checks in Gibraltar, but that Frontex officers would carry out the actual physical controls on the ground, at least for the first four years after which the arrangement would be reviewed.

The parliamentary response, which was made public on May 22, suggests the Spanish Government is still seeking a direct role inside Gibraltar for its uniformed police officers.

The PP had asked the Spanish Government for information as to how Schengen controls would work in practice if an agreement was reached between the UK and the EU.

It asked whether Spanish officers, supported by Frontex, would be involved in immigration checks from the outset of any agreement, whether they would be uniformed and armed, and whether their rules of engagement in the event of any incident would be the same as at existing entry points to Spain.

In its response, the Spanish Government said Schengen entry and exit checks “must” be carried out by officers of Spain’s Policia Nacional.

“The Policia Nacional must carry out border controls,” the response said.

“If Frontex agents are present, their role should be to support and complement the Policia Nacional.”

“Therefore, the responsibility for conducting border inspections lies with the Policia Nacional, with Frontex serving an auxiliary function.”

The response said there should also be arrangements where officers could conduct more thorough checks away from main passenger areas should these be needed, adding the Policia Nacional must be “able to move freely throughout the entire border area” in carrying out their duties.

It referred too to Policia Nacional officers conducting Schengen immigration checks having additional immigration powers including being able to refuse entry and deal with international protection orders, among others.

“Both at the airport and at the port and marina (both outside the isthmus), the Policia Nacional must serve in uniform,” the response said.

“Policia Nacional officers carry weapons while performing their duties.”

In setting out its position, Spain referred to its obligations to fellow EU member states within the Schengen area.

“Spain is required to comply with the Schengen acquis, so border inspections will be conducted in accordance with the Schengen Borders Code and must be carried out under identical conditions at land borders, airports, and ports,” the response said.

“The upcoming implementation of the Entry Exit System (EES) across the entire EU aims to register and store the entry and exit of nationals from third countries crossing the borders of the Schengen Area. This includes citizens of the United Kingdom.”

For now, negotiators continue with technical discussions, which will not be stalled by elections in the EU early June and the July 4 UK General Election called by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday.

The Chief Minister told Parliament on Thursday that given electoral demands on key political figures – a reference to Mr Sefcovic and Lord Cameron – sealing a political agreement before July 4 was “unlikely”, though “not impossible”.

Earlier this week, in evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee in the House of Commons ahead of the UK election being announced, Lord Cameron said protecting British sovereignty was “paramount” in any agreement.

He said both he and the Chief Minister were “incredibly tough” negotiators who would “not give up one inch of sovereignty” in negotiating the treaty.

And while he underlined the progress to date and a shared commitment among all parties to reach agreement in the interests of communities on either side of the border, he was clear too there were some things the UK and Gibraltar would not agree to.

“There are some very clear lines that we can't cross,” Lord Cameron said, without adding any detail.

“And if a deal isn't possible, then we won't agree a deal.”

“But we're hopeful. We think that there's been some good movement in the last few rounds of talks.”

“But we're very clear. If a deal isn't right, we won't sign it.”

In the Gibraltar Parliament on Thursday, the Chief Minister echoed Lord Cameron’s sentiments on recent progress after the two quadrilateral high-level meetings in Brussels, but acknowledged “difficult issues” remained on the negotiating table.

“As a result of these two meetings, important progress has been made in relation to the issues that remain outstanding between the parties,” Mr Picardo said.

“These are difficult issues and the parties remain fully committed to finding solution solutions to each one of them.”

The Chief Minister was asked by Keith Azopardi, the Leader of the Opposition, for his reaction to concerns raised by the European Scrutiny Committee that proposed immigration arrangements would undermine British sovereignty.

Mr Picardo had earlier described that suggestion as “abhorrent” and, like Lord Cameron, had underscored that the Gibraltar Government would never agree to a treaty that diminished Gibraltar’s British sovereignty in any way.

While acknowledging the UK’s support for Gibraltar, he reminded Parliament that Conservative governments had on occasion in the past been “less stalwart” defenders of British sovereignty than the Gibraltarians, citing the 1984 Brussels Agreement and 1987 airport agreement as examples.

He said too that Brexiteers in the UK would likely have different views, within the context of Gibraltar’s relationship with the EU, of what might represent a threat to British sovereignty.

“96% of the people of Gibraltar voted to remain in the European Union,” Mr Picardo said.

“Nobody can pretend to me to be a stauncher guardian of the sovereignty of Gibraltar than the people of Gibraltar themselves.”

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