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‘Ingredients in place’ for treaty on Gibraltar, Europe Minister tells MPs

Europe Minister James Cleverly [right] and FCDO official Julian Braithwaite during Thursda's evidence session.

The UK Minister for Europe said on Thursday that “the ingredients are in place” for a UK/EU treaty on Gibraltar’s future relationship with the bloc.

James Cleverly said remaining areas of disagreement were “eminently soluble” but refused to speculate on when the talks might conclude.

In evidence to a House of Commons committee, Mr Cleverly and Julian Braithwaite, the Director General for Europe at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, said the talks were currently focused on what role Spanish immigration officers would play in applying the Schengen code in Gibraltar should a deal be reached.

Mr Cleverly told MPs on the Commons European Scrutiny Committee that despite the talks dragging on after a slow start, the mood remained positive and the relationships between the parties close.

“The ingredients are in place to get resolution on this,” Mr Cleverly said, adding: “It started much, much more slowly than I think any of us would have wanted.”

“The starting gun wasn’t fired until much, much later than we would have liked.”

“And it is a sensitive issue and it is a complicated issue.”

“I am confident it can be resolved and that it will be resolved in the way many of these things are resolved.”

“And that’s with a good dose of goodwill on the part of everyone involved in the negotiations.”

“I’ve made it clear both to the Gibraltarian Government and the Spanish Government that of course the integrity of Gibraltar is absolutely non-negotiable.”

“They know that. And as I say, the tone of the conversation is a positive one.”

“I don’t want to speculate as to when this will be resolved but it does strike me as an eminently soluble problem.”

Mr Cleverly and Mr Braithwaite were pressed to offer a degree of insight into what remained to be agreed in the talks.

MPs heard that the discussions were focused on the detail of what role Spanish officers would play in the application of Schengen rules in Gibraltar under any treaty.

In the New Years’ Eve agreement between the UK – with Gibraltar – and the EU, which forms the basis of the treaty talks, the aim was to agree a common travel area between Gibraltar and the Schengen zone, with the possibility too of a bespoke customs arrangement.

Spain, as neighbouring country, would take responsibility on behalf of the EU for Schengen immigration checks in Gibraltar, but Frontex officers would carry out the actual physical controls on the ground, at least for the first four years.

“It’s the devil in the detail,” Mr Cleverly told MPs on the current state of play, before handing over to Mr Braithwaite who has been involved more closely in the process.

Mr Braithwaite said negotiators had completed seven rounds of formal talks so far, and that the basis of the negotiation was the New Years’ Eve agreement.

“The nub is the issue around mobility and particularly implementing the agreement between us and the Spanish about how Schengen would work, and the degree to which Spanish officials would be involved in that and how it would be managed in a way that was seamless,” he said.

“There was an agreement in the joint agreement on how that would work and that is where we’re focusing down in the negotiations now.”

BORDER TROUBLE

Mr Cleverly was also quizzed on recent issues experienced at the border by non-EU nationals who do not have a red Gibraltar ID card.

Non-EU nationals crossing into Spain have been asked under a strict application of Schengen rules to justify their reasons for travel, with day trippers turned back.

Red ID card holders are allowed through without those checks under interim arrangements applied by Spain, but problems experienced but other residents with blue or purple ID cards have caused outrage in recent days.

The UK minister appeared to be largely unaware of the issue, however, and insisted this was not a negotiating ploy by Spain.

Asked if Spain was tightening controls to up the ante in the talks, Mr Cleverly replied: “That’s not the tone that I’m picking up in the conversations that I’ve had.”

“I’ve not seen those specific reports [about non-EU nationals, but] people crossing borders on occasions have difficulties.”

“It’s undesirable but it’s a by-product of the administrative processes that you have at borders.”

And he added: “I’m not detecting anything that would lead me to believe that there is a formal or mandated toughening of their position on this.”

The minister was asked too as to whether the European Court of Justice would have any role in the application of the agreement, a red line for Eurosceptics in the Commons.

Mr Cleverly said the UK Government saw no need for EU law to apply directly in relation to the treaty, or for oversight from the European court.

He said this was a “longstanding position” of the UK Government and would come as “no surprise” to the Commission or Spain.

And Mr Braithwaite added: “We don’t think there’s a need for the European Court of Justice to have a role at all.”

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