Picardo and Sánchez positive about Gibraltar despite wider Brexit uncertainty
- Protocol ‘resolved’ for Gibraltar’s inclusion in Withdrawal Agreement and transition
- Airport agreement ‘set aside’ and status quo remains
Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez both yesterday sent positive signals about the progress of Brexit talks relating to Gibraltar, effectively confirming the Rock’s inclusion in any withdrawal and transitional arrangements to soften the process of leaving the EU.
Addressing the Gibraltar Parliament, Mr Picardo said there was now a “fairly final” protocol on Gibraltar that would form part of the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement, if and when that wider deal is agreed.
Speaking to reporters in Brussels after speaking to Prime Minister Theresa May on the sidelines of the EU summit in the morning [above], Mr Sánchez echoed that sentiment and said the Gibraltar protocol “is resolved”.
“That protocol is already agreed, it’s closed,” he said.
“As such, Gibraltar will not be a problem in order to reach an agreement on Brexit.”
By coincidence, both men were speaking at exactly the same time yesterday afternoon.
The appearances were not coordinated, but the messages reflected confidence on Gibraltar despite the deep uncertainty surrounding the wider Brexit negotiations on issues such as the future of the border between Norther Ireland and Ireland.
“I believe that there is genuine reason for optimism that there is no longer any question mark over the inclusion of Gibraltar in any transitional or implementation period,” Mr Picardo told Parliament.
“There is no longer talk of vetoing Gibraltar’s inclusion in the transition or implementation period.”
The Chief Minister repeated earlier explanations about the structure of the protocol, which will be signed between the UK and the EU as part of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Although he differed from Mr Sánchez in that he said there were still some points in the protocol - “not many” – to be ironed out, he said the text would be agreed with the EU’s Task Force 50, the group of legal experts overseeing the wider Withdrawal Agreement alongside UK officials.
Both Mr Picardo and Mr Sánchez also spoke about the practical arrangements relating to Gibraltar’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU and Spain, which are being negotiated separately from the protocol.
Mr Picardo said there was already “a large measure of agreement” on four of those memorandums, including one covering the implementation of citizens’ rights protected under the main Withdrawal Agreement.
The second memorandum deals with the environment, an area in which Mr Picardo said Gibraltar had long wanted to cooperate more closely with Spain.
“The environment knows no frontiers and we have long been keen to see cooperation in this area on a basis which is clearly without prejudice to the sovereignty, jurisdiction and control position on which we would never compromise, expressly or impliedly, in any respect but in particular in respect of Gibraltar’s British Gibraltar Territorial Waters,” he said.
The third memorandum addresses matters of police and customs cooperation, where there has long been a good regional relationship despite incursions and occasional flare-ups at sea.
“We sincerely hope that we can leave disagreements behind and move toward more fluid cooperation,” Mr Picardo said.
“The only ones who should tremble at the thought of this new approach to cooperation should be criminals.”
The fourth memorandum related to tobacco, where Mr Picardo spoke of a “shared agenda” to control illicit contraband with protective respective legitimate markets.
The work on this agreement is not yet complete and relates to issues such as the price differential between one side of the border and the other.
But Mr Picardo, whose government has increased the price of tobacco by 148% since first taking office, said he considered this commodity to be “on a permanent price escalator”, not least because of the health consequences of smoking.
Work is also still under way on a memorandum to agree a tax treaty to settle what Mr Picardo described as “the perennial misunderstanding by some in Spain of our internationally-accepted tax system”.
NO AIRPORT DEAL
As for the airport, Mr Picardo said the PSOE government in Spain was not prepared to implement the Cordoba agreement reached by a former socialist administration in Spain. As such, nothing would change and the position will be “the status quo”.
Speaking in Brussels, Mr Sánchez also reflected on the airport and the issue of sovereignty.
The Socialist Prime Minister has been criticised by the Partido Popular for not using the Brexit process to push for sovereignty and joint control of the airport.
But Mr Sánchez insisted that his team was continuing the strategy set by the PP’s former Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis, who had said from the outset after replacing the hawkish Jose Manuel García-Margallo that sovereignty was not on Spain’s Brexit agenda.
“What we wanted – and I think it’s normal and reasonable – was to have an agreement that provided stability and certainty to the populations of the Campo de Gibraltar and Gibraltar,” Mr Sánchez said, in one of two references to populations on either side of the frontier.
For that reason, “…those elements where we are light years away from an understanding with the United Kingdom, for example on the use of the airport or on sovereignty, were set aside, removed from the negotiation.”
“We have respected that strategy, and now those who designed it are criticising us.”
Mr Sánchez referred to the memorandums as being negotiated “bilaterally” between Spain and the UK, although in reality Gibraltar has been part of the negotiations from the outset.
That has included bilateral talks with Spanish officials on several occasions, a reflection of the fact that the subjects under discussion relate to areas that are the constitutional responsibility of the Gibraltar Government.
Mr Picardo repeated earlier assurances that his government would not accept any agreement that in any way impinged on Gibraltar’s British sovereignty or the ingredients of jurisdiction and control.
And while he was optimistic about the progress of the talks, he was cautious too given that the negotiations were not yet complete.
“For that reason, it is not yet possible or prudent to share publicly our own analysis of each clause and how we have ensured that Gibraltar’s interests are entirely protected,” he said.
The Chief Minister stressed that both the protocol and the memorandums related to the withdrawal process and the transitional period after March 29 next year.
Gibraltar’s future relationship with the EU after that period remained to be negotiated.
Addressing the Chief Minister after his speech in Parliament, GSD MP Daniel Feetham acknowledged that there was an opportunity for Gibraltar to try and seek a future relationship where Gibraltar enjoyed "more European Union than the UK desires for itself", adding that he believed it would be difficult to achieve, "but possible".
Replying to him, Mr Picardo said he and Mr Feetham shared the view that this was "the right course" and that "there may be" the opportunity to have "a differentiated solution" for Gibraltar.
He said this was not part of the withdrawal process, but rather about the future relationship that Gibraltar will have with the EU.
"The question for Gibraltar is, how do we calibrate out future relationship with the European Union?" he said.
"As I sometimes tell my British colleagues, 'we might want more EU than you'."
He used as an example the issue of freedom of movement, which had benefited Gibraltar's economy and, in doing so, created jobs and wealth for people in the Campo too.
And Mr Picardo added too that frontier fluidity was not just about workers, or crossing the border in either direction for shopping and leisure.
"That frontier cuts across the heart and soul of many families and of many friendships, and seeing any barriers put up, in particular, that those barriers should be born from something happens on the 50th anniversary of its closure, would be a tragedy that certainly this government, and I'm sure all members of this House, would not want to see," he said.
"And we won't leave any stone unturned to ensure that never happens again."
For his part, Elliot Phillips, the Leader of the Opposition, said the GSD welcomed the Chief Minister's statement and acknowledged the "fuller and lengthy" briefing he had given MPs on the Brexit select committee.
Mr Phillips said the GSD reserved its judgement on the handling and the outcome of the negotiations, but added: "We wish the government all the very best in the delicate and technical work that remains in securing and protecting the best interests of the people of Gibraltar."
He said the Chief Minister and his team "bear a very heavy burden of securing the best outcome for our community", adding that the GSD again offered its assistance.
Independent Marlene Hassan Nahon also acknowledged the Brexit briefings she had received from the government, which she said had covered both the negotiations and the contingency planning.
Ms Hassan Nahon, whose Together Gibraltar movement this week voted to become a political party, said was happy, both as an MP and as a citizen, to hear of the "optimistic prognosis" for the negotiations.
Like the GSD, she too said she stood ready to assist the government in any way she could.
Photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville