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Opinion & Analysis

Miles from La Moncloa

Spain’s acting Foreign Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, paid his first formal visit to the Campo yesterday, but he did not even get a glimpse of the Rock on which he has exerted so much negative energy over the past few years. As if on cue, a heavy sea mist enveloped Gibraltar and hid it from sight for most of the day. By the time it lifted, García-Margallo was on his way back to Madrid.

There were few surprises during the visit. He set out the proposal for co-sovereignty and insisted it was not only beneficial for Gibraltar and the Campo, but represented the only solution if Gibraltar wished to remain in the EU. He also set out the battle lines for the coming weeks and months.

García-Margallo insists Gibraltar cannot be included in the UK’s Brexit deal with the EU. Gibraltar and the UK believe otherwise. Likewise, where Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and his team have been exploring potential EU-linked solutions for the Rock against a backdrop of uncertainty, García-Margallo believes there are only two options: co-sovereignty, or British outside the EU. If it’s the latter, he warns, then the four freedoms of the EU – including the movement of persons – will cease immediately. Implicit in that statement is a warning of tough times ahead at the border.

García-Margallo’s is a black and white scenario, but it is not shared by everyone in Spain. In the Campo, the mayors impressed on him the need for dialogue and good neighbourly relations. The PSOE too has signalled that now is not the time to try and capitalise on joint sovereignty in the face of a complex and serious challenge like Brexit. But there is a sense too that even in Madrid, among the ranks of the caretaker government, there is a different view.

García-Margallo’s message yesterday could not be further removed from the signals sent by No 10 Downing Street and La Moncloa last week after Prime Minister Theresa May met her Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy. Gibraltar was raised briefly during their private discussion, but there was no reference to it in statements issued by both sides. The inescapable conclusion was that May and Rajoy had bigger things to talk about and wanted to avoid a spat over the Rock. Their focus was on the interests of Britons living in Spain, Spaniards living in Britain, Spanish and British companies doing business with each other. They were looking at the impact of Brexit on the EU and on independence movements in Scotland and Catalonia. Gibraltar was on the radar, certainly, but it was a blip on the outer edges.

García-Margallo has made Gibraltar a central element of his discourse on Brexit, threatening to veto any deal beneficial to Gibraltar unless we pay the joint sovereignty price. He sees in Brexit the best opportunity Spain has had in over 300 years to regain the sovereignty of the Rock. He is seeking to wrap that iron fist in the velvet glove of a joint sovereignty proposal which Spain says will save Gibraltar from Brexit. But the answer here is clear: thanks, but no thanks.

The answer in Britain is clear too. This is crucial, and García-Margallo knows that. As May was landing in Madrid last week, her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was addressing a committee of MPs in the House of Commons and signalling the UK's “implacable, marmoreal, Rock-like resistance to Spain” in relation to Gibraltar. García-Margallo this week described the British position as “very firm”. He mentioned it again yesterday, saying Britain had made the position “absolutely clear”.

The approach from La Moncloa is far more nuanced than García-Margallo’s. It is focused not on the Rock and Spain’s sovereignty aspiration, but on the wider relationship between the UK and Spain, which is deep, longstanding and multi-faceted. La Moncloa acknowledged that whatever Spain's hope to regain the sovereignty of Gibraltar, Brexit presents incredibly complex challenges that must be untangled carefully, methodically, calmly, and in partnership.

Britain is clear that it will include Gibraltar in that process and that it will not buckle in upholding the wishes of the Gibraltarians to remain British. The Gibraltarians are clear that they do not want joint sovereignty. Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said yesterday that Gibraltar will never bow to veiled or explicit threats. It wants good neighbourly relations with the Campo, based on respect and working together for mutual benefit. With political will, it should be possible to park sovereignty to one side and focus on practical solutions to the challenge of a Brexit that no one here wants. But Spain should be clear of one thing: Gibraltar will never surrender its sovereignty.

The way that Rajoy handled the Gibraltar issue last week suggests there may be some awareness of that outside the Minstry for Foreign Affairs in Madrid. Yesterday in the Campo, García-Margallo was miles from La Moncloa, both physically and in message. Because the last thing that Britain and Spain need is a Brexit negotiation that runs aground on the Rock of Gibraltar over an outdated sovereignty claim that only García-Margallo appears to obsess about.