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Mixed messages cause confusion over return to border normality

Photo by Eyleen Gomez

By Brian Reyes and Maria Jesus Corrales

There was confusion on Monday after Spain’s Ministry for the Interior sent mixed messages over prospects for a return to normality at the border between Gibraltar and Spain.

Early Monday morning, the Spanish ministry signalled that residents of Gibraltar would be allowed to cross into Spain as the country eased its own lockdown restrictions and regions including Andalucia moved into a new phase of the exit strategy.

The development was first reported by Spanish newspaper El Pais, which said Gibraltar residents would be able to cross into Spain as from yesterday.

That same position was later confirmed directly to the Chronicle by a spokesman for the Spanish Ministry of the Interior and was subsequently reported by the Spanish state-owned news agency EFE and other Spanish media.

But it prompted confusion on the ground because Spanish police officers tasked with immigration duties at the border had not been informed of any change.

The news saw many people trying to cross into Spain for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. Although some made it through, most were turned back.

“For now, everything remains the same until further instruction,” a spokesman for the Policia Nacional told this newspaper.

For weeks, Covid-19 restrictions on movement within Spain have had a knock-on impact on border flow that means only residents in Spain and cross-border workers are allowed to cross.

But Spain has not applied the stricter restrictions in place at its borders with France and Portugal to its frontiers with Gibraltar and Andorra, where the limitations on movement arise solely from the wider lockdown measures inside the country.

That means that as restrictions on movement are eased within Andalucia, which entered phase three of Spain’s exit strategy yesterday, this will be reflected on who is able to cross into Spain from the Rock.

Pressed again for clarification last night, the spokesman for the Spanish ministry said officials were still working out the detail to ensure coordination between the lockdown exit steps in Spain and those in Gibraltar.

But he was unable to state with any certainty when Gibraltar residents might be able to cross as normal, although the indications are that the change will likely come soon.

Speaking at the weekly press briefing at No.6 Convent Place early on Monday, Dr Joseph Garcia, the Deputy Chief Minister, said the latest official information received by the Gibraltar Government on Sunday was that there would be no automatic change because of Andalucia's move into phase three of the Spanish exit.

But asked about the article in El Pais, Dr Garcia acknowledged that the situation was fluid.

"It's possible that different branches of government are giving different pieces of information," he said.

"Clearly, if there is any development we will inform the public accordingly."

Last night, after a day of conflicting messages from Spain, a spokesman for No.6 Convent Place said the Gibraltar Government had been in contact with the Spanish ministry for some time about the prospect of a return to normal frontier flow.

"The position as we understand it is as stated by the Ministry of the Interior to the press and directly to us,” the spokesman told the Chronicle.

“We are seeking further clarification as to when the change will be implemented.”

The confusion echoes a similar situation last week following conflicting statements from Spanish officials and ministers in respect of the borders with Portugal and France.

Spain was forced to play down the possibility of reopening its land borders on June 22 after a government minister announced it would do so on that date, prompting confusion in neighbouring Portugal, which asked for clarification.

Frontiers with France and Portugal have been shut to most people since Spain went into lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus in mid-March, faced with what was then one of the world's worst outbreaks of the virus.

This article was updated at 23.30 on June 8 to reflect the latest developments.