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In Spain’s new political landscape, a different view of Gibraltar

Spain's socialist leader Pedro Sanchez takes the oath during the swearing in ceremony in the presence of Spain's King Felipe VI and former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, right, at the Zarzuela Palace on the outskirts of Madrid, Spain, Saturday June 2, 2018. Pedro Sanchez has been sworn in as Spain's Prime Minister by King Felipe VI in a ceremony after coming to power Saturday a day after successfully leading a no-confidence vote to oust conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. (Fernando Alvarado/Pool Photo via AP)

Spain’s new Socialist government is likely to adopt a “flexible” approach to
Gibraltar that seeks consensus “as quickly as possible” on how best to mitigate the impact of Brexit, the PSOE’s international relations secretary, Héctor Gómez, said at the weekend.

He was speaking to The Telegraph as PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez was sworn in as
Spain’s Prime Minister on Saturday, having ousted the Partido Popular’s Mariano Rajoy in a vote of no confidence in the Spanish parliament on Friday.

“We want a consensus solution that has no negative impact on the dynamics of the
local populations and the daily flow of people crossing the border,” Mr Gómez told The Telegraph, noting the importance of Gibraltar to the economy of the towns on the Spanish side of the frontier.

“We are committed to a deal that prevents the border becoming an obstacle after

Mr Sanchez, who has just 84 MPs in the 350-seat Spanish Congress, is expected to
start naming his cabinet later this week. The former Socialist minister and ex
president of the European Parliament, Josep Borrell, is tipped as the front runner for the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In his comments this weekend, Mr Gómez was reflecting sentiments that Mr
Sanchez himself had expressed as recently as March this year, when he signalled
the Cordoba agreement as a possible route-map for better relations with Gibraltar.

During a visit to La Linea last March, Mr Sanchez highlighted the role that Gibraltar could play as an economic driver for the region.

“We have proposed strengthening cross-border cooperation,” he said during an
interview with Europa Sur at the time.

“Beyond the age-old debate between Spain and the United Kingdom on sovereignty, we have the Cordoba agreement, signed by a Socialist government, which focused efforts on cooperation.”

That agreement, he added, contained “elements that are very important for the
economy of the Campo de Gibraltar, such as the joint use of the airport.”

Mr Sanchez made clear that the PSOE’s position on sovereignty was “self evident”.

“But beyond a political position, a structural position, on what the Rock represents, from the current perspective I won’t deny that there are thousands of workers in La Linea and the Campo de Gibraltar who could be particularly affected by Brexit,” he said.

“The social and employment rights of individuals, and the free flow of workers
across the frontier with Gibraltar, are the fundamental issue.”

The comments, made less than three months before his shock move into office last
week, signal the different stance between the PSOE and the PP on core issues such
as joint use of the airport, one of the sticking points holding up the progress of ongoing talks about Gibraltar’s post-Brexit future.

They reflect too not just the relationship forged by the last Socialist government in Spain with the UK and Gibraltar under the trilateral process, but also years of contact since between the Gibraltar Government and the PSOE at provincial, regional and national level.

The meeting between Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and the PSOE president of the
Junta de Andalucia, Susana Diaz, in Seville earlier this year illustrates the strength and depth of that relationship.

For years, sometimes in public, more often in private, the GSLP/Liberal
administration and the PSOE have maintained regular contacts to share views on the most pressing issues of the day, not least Brexit.

In the Campo, the relationship with key players in this area including the PSOE’s
MP for Cádiz, Salvador de la Encina, is close and fluid.

The hope in No.6 Convent Place, as signalled by the Chief Minister in parliament on Friday, is that those discussions will yield swift results as the Brexit deadline looms ever closer, facilitating agreements that respect each side’s red lines as was the case with Cordoba and the trilateral process.

But Gibraltar has some support too in the other parties that Mr Sanchez’s minority
government will have to work with in the coming weeks, again stemming in large
part from discreet engagement with Gibraltar over many years.

The Basque Nationalist Party, the party whose surprise support for Mr Sanchez
swung the vote that ousted Mr Rajoy from La Moncloa, is no stranger to the issues
facing Gibraltar.

Its leader, Aitor Esteban Bravo, visited the Rock early in 2015 and met with Mr
Picardo and Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia.

At the time Mr Esteban, who had a taste of the border when he was forced to leave
his car in La Linea and walk across due to lengthy queues, expressed support for
Gibraltar’s right to self-determination.

“It’s not about any Spanish political party changing its position about what it might hope will happen one day with Gibraltar,” he said.

“But we are in the 21st century and things are not about treaties between kings or decrees, but about the will of the people.”

“Confrontation is not going to improve the Spanish position.”

“I think there is a way to resolve things without anybody having to abandon their
ideological position.”

He said Spain should see Gibraltar as an opportunity for the Campo and Andalucia, where unemployment remains higher than the national average, a position he has since emphasised again during exchanges in the Spanish parliament, where he sits on the Foreign Affairs Commission.

When the PP’s Alfonso Dastis took over from Jose Manuel García-Margallo as Spain’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Esteban told him to build cross-border

“I would urge cooperation because Gibraltar can be an economic driver for the area if it is well managed, instead of seeking conflict,” Mr Esteban said.

He reminded Mr Dastis too that any agreement about Gibraltar would need the
blessing of the Gibraltarians.

“Whatever happens with Gibraltar, it’s no good without the backing of the people,”
Mr Esteban said at the time.

“It’s not about territory, it’s about people, and you’ll have to include them, it’s no good leaving them out and dealing only with the United Kingdom.”

Even the the left-leaning Podemos, which has traditionally taken a very dim view
of Gibraltar’s economic business model, has routinely voiced support for good
cross-border relations with the Rock.

Podemos, which will play a critical role for Mr Sanchez’s precarious PSOE
administration, has also defended the right of the Gibraltarians to determine their own future.

During a debate in the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Spanish parliament in
late 2016, Ángela Rodríguez Martínez, the spokeswoman for Unidos Podemos-En
Marea, made that position clear.

“The people who live there will have to decide what their future will be,” she said.

Joan Tardá, the spokesman for Catalan party Esquerra Republicana, another party
that supported Mr Sanchez’ rise to power last week, echoed that stance during the
same debate.

He said that while it was legitimate for Spanish political parties to defend a claim over the sovereignty of the Rock, it was also necessary to respect the right to self-determination of the people of Gibraltar.

And he said that Gibraltar must be represented at any discussion about the future of the Rock in the face of the Brexit challenge, adding that 96% of the population of Gibraltar had voted to remain in the EU.

“If we want to help them, then we have to listen to them,” he said, adding that
Spain “should stop making life difficult” for the Gibraltarians.

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