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May signals robust support for Gibraltar as agreement is reached on Brexit MoUs

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday November 21, 2018. See PA story POLITICS PMQs May. Photo credit should read: PA Wire

Prime Minister Theresa May sent a clear message to Spain and the European Union on Gibraltar on Wednesday, insisting the UK would not exclude the Rock from negotiations for its future relationship with the bloc after Brexit.

The robust statement during Prime Minister's questions came as Gibraltar, the UK and Spain finalised work on the agreements that accompany the Gibraltar Protocol in the draft Brexit divorce deal.

The final details of four memorandums of understanding and a tax agreement were hammered out during intense meetings between the three governments in Madrid on Tuesday.

The Gibraltar delegation was led by Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, who was accompanied by deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia, Attorney General Michael Llamas and Financial Secretary Albert Mena.

They met with senior officials from the Foreign Office and Spain’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs to iron out the last outstanding issues in the texts, which have yet to be published.

The agreements provide a framework for cooperation with Spain on issues including citizens’ rights, tobacco, the environment, police and customs matters, and taxation.

They stem from the Gibraltar Protocol, which is itself part of the wider Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the EU and ensures Gibraltar is covered by transitional arrangements to cushion departure from the bloc.

Work on the memorandums and the tax agreement continued despite Spain’s threat to vote against the draft Withdrawal Agreement over concerns that the deal will include Gibraltar within the scope of forthcoming talks between the UK and EU on a future relationship after Brexit.

EU leaders are due to ratify the draft divorce deal at a European Council meeting on Sunday but Spain said it cannot support the agreement unless it is given a clear veto on Gibraltar’s inclusion within the negotiations on the future relationship.

The UK Government has made clear it will not exclude Gibraltar from discussions on the future arrangements after withdrawal, a message repeated in the House of Commons by the Prime Minister yesterday.

Responding to a question from Conservative MP and stalwart Gibraltar supporter Bob Neill, Mrs May remained resolute on Gibraltar’s inclusion in the process.

"We are absolutely steadfast as he is in our support for Gibraltar, its people and its economy and we've always been clear that Gibraltar is covered by our exit negotiations and we've been committed to fully involve them as we exit the European Union,” she said.

"We are seeking a deal that works for the whole UK family and that deal must work for Gibraltar too.”

"I'm pleased that we have agreed a protocol on Gibraltar that will form part of a wider package of agreements between the UK, Spain and the Government of Gibraltar setting out the parties' commitment to cooperation.”

"We will not exclude Gibraltar from our negotiations on the future relationship. We want a deal that works for the whole UK family and that includes Gibraltar."

The UK and Gibraltar insist the Spanish concerns are a matter for Madrid and its EU partners to resolve.

The Withdrawal Agreement is a legally-binding treaty that has been tough to negotiate and neither London or Brussels are willing to reopen it to address the Spanish objections.

The EU, however, is likely to reflect the Spanish position in a political declaration that will set the framework for the second phase of the Brexit negotiations but will not be legally binding.

Spain’s Socialist government has come under pressure from the Partido Popular opposition, which has hardened its stance on Gibraltar and accused the PSOE of “betrayal” for failing to push historical sovereignty aspirations over the Rock.

In the Spanish Congress, the PP’s Jose Ramon Garcia launched a vitriolic attack on Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, who he said had conducted “a terrible negotiation” and was “not up to it”.

“We no longer have a right of veto,” Mr Garcia complained.

But Mr Borrell dismissed the criticism and said all the agreements relating to Gibraltar were now in place, adding that Spain’s only concern was in relation to negotiations for the future relationship.

That position was echoed by Marco Arguiriano, Spain’s state secretary for EU affairs, during an interview on COPE in which he said that pushing the sovereignty agenda as the PP wished would have derailed the negotiations and was “a mistaken tactic”.

Mr Arguiriano acknowledged that while Madrid believed it was negotiating bilaterally with London, the Gibraltar Government had participated in the negotiations alongside Spanish and UK officials.

He said the PSOE was not renouncing Spain’s historical sovereignty aspirations but added that both Gibraltar and the UK would have “closed ranks and refused to negotiate” had Madrid followed the policies set by the former PP minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo.

“I’ve already told you what results that produced in the past and would produce now,” he said.

“Yesterday I was with UK negotiators, who were accompanied by top Gibraltarian officials, and I can assure you that this was repeatedly made clear, as it has been in all our meetings.”

Mr Arguiriano said the negotiations had been conducted “in a climate of understanding” and sought to establish “a modern relationship that is beneficial for all, both on the Rock and in the Campo de Gibraltar, and is constructive and even cordial”.

But he insisted that Spain wanted a decisive say in respect of the future arrangements and Gibraltar’s inclusion within those negotiations.

The EU’s acceptance of the Withdrawal Agreement will be by a qualified majority vote.

That means Spain alone cannot block the deal, which in any event has yet to be debated and approved the UK Parliament, where Mrs May faces tough opposition to the text.

After Tuesday’s meetings in Madrid, the Gibraltar Government said the memorandums and the tax agreement were now complete “subject only to text stabilisation, legal checks and minor clarifications”.

These are expected to be finalised by the weekend.

The Chief Minister has convened an extraordinary meeting of the Cabinet on Thursday morning to brief ministers on latest developments.

The Deputy Chief Minister has also convened a meeting to brief the Brexit Select Committee of the Parliament.

On Thursday afternoon, the Chief Minister will make a statement to Parliament 3pm in order to update the House and the community on the latest developments.

The Chief Minister also expects to make a ministerial statement next week after the European Council in Brussels on Sunday and the anticipated publication of all the relevant texts.

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