Raab highlights ‘goodwill on all sides’ ahead of treaty talks, but Spanish checks inside Gibraltar ‘not acceptable’
The UK and Gibraltar governments made clear on Monday that Schengen border checks by Spanish officials inside Gibraltar “would not be acceptable” as part of a treaty for the Rock’s post-Brexit relationship with the bloc, now or in the future.
In a joint communique issued after a whistle-stop visit by UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to Gibraltar, both governments left no doubt this was a red line they would not cross.
Mr Raab flew into Gibraltar at lunchtime for a meeting of the UK-Gibraltar Joint Ministerial Council [JMC], the first time the council had convened in Gibraltar since it was established in 2016 after the Brexit referendum.
A key item on the JMC agenda was the forthcoming negotiation for the Gibraltar treaty envisaged in a framework agreement agreed by the UK, Gibraltar and Spain on New Year’s Eve, and which all three governments hope can be finalised by the end of June.
The joint statement highlighted that the agreement sought to achieve the fluid movement of people between Gibraltar and the Schengen area.
It also envisages a joint operation with the European Border and Coastguard Agency [Frontex] for an initial implementation period of four years.
“In the event that, after consultations on the results of the arrangements of the implementation period, either of the parts, namely Spain on the first part, and the UK and the Gibraltar authorities on the second part, are not satisfied with the results at the end of the implementation period, the agreement will be terminated at the end of that period,” the statement said.
“For both the UK and Gibraltar Governments, the operation of front line Schengen external border checks on the territory of Gibraltar by Spanish officials would not be acceptable.”
The framework agreement also opens up the possibility of a bespoke deal on customs between the EU and Gibraltar.
Gibraltar is currently analysing the implications of such a move for its economy, given that the Rock has never formed part of the EU Customs union even while an EU member.
“Any solution should reflect the unique character and limited scale of Gibraltar’s economy, with the aim of minimising barriers between Gibraltar and the EU without requiring a disproportionate regulatory, legal or administrative burden,” the joint statement said.
Mr Raab’s visit to Gibraltar was kept under tight wraps for security reasons and journalists had no sight of the communique until late Monday evening.
But during a brief exchange with reporters alongside Chief Minister Fabian Picardo earlier in the day, the Foreign Secretary said he remained “reasonably optimistic” that the process to negotiate a treaty remained on “a good track” and that there was “goodwill on all sides”.
He also reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to the people of Gibraltar and to the Rock’s British sovereignty, as did the joint statement which underlined the UK double-lock on sovereignty.
“It was important for me to come here to Gibraltar to see Fabian and to see the Government of Gibraltar and to make the statement to the people of Gibraltar that we reaffirm, on behalf of the UK, our steadfast commitment to British sovereignty and to the stability and the prosperity of the people of Gibraltar as part of the UK family,” the Foreign Sectretary said.
Asked about the areas that remain to be resolved in order to reach agreement on the treaty, Mr Raab expressed confidence that the negotiations would be fruitful.
“Everyone knows that these negotiations can be difficult but I think we dealt with a lot of the stumbling blocks and surmounted them in the negotiations we had over the Christmas period,” Mr Raab said.
“So the focus that we take with Fabian and his team is to faithfully replicate what's envisaged in the framework in a legally-binding treaty, and to start thinking less about obstacles and more about the potential for win-win.”
“And obviously we want to get this done in the [June] timeframe but let's strive for the right result and be flexible to allow us to achieve it.”
The negotiations for the treaty have yet to commence and the European Commission is finalising a mandate that must be approved by the European Council before the talks can commence.
That process comes against the backdrop of friction between the UK and the EU on issues such as Northern Ireland and the supply of Covid-19 vaccines.
Pressed by reporters on how those tensions might impact the Gibraltar negotiations, Mr Raab said he remained “reasonably confident” that the treaty could be successfully agreed.
“Look, I think we've got a good track here and I think the advantage of having had the negotiation over the December period is that we built up some goodwill on all sides,” he said.
“We're committed to resolving all of our tensions with the EU in a pragmatic, sensible way.”
“Obviously it always takes goodwill on all sides but actually I'm reasonably confident, given the process we've already been through, that we've got a good track and again, with hard work and goodwill on all sides, I think we can turn this framework into a legally-binding treaty and I think that's good news all round.”
‘BRITISH SOVEREIGNTY PRESERVED’
During the JMC meeting chaired by Mr Picardo, the UK and Gibraltar teams dined on calentita and torta de acelgas – Mr Raab took two helpings of Gibraltar’s national dish – as they finalised their joint approach to the forthcoming treaty negotiations.
In the statement, they highlighted “the constructive and forward-looking approach” taken by the Spanish Government and underlined their commitment to proceed with the talks in the same spirit of “shared partnership”.
They said the negotiation offered an opportunity to secure future prosperity for Gibraltar and its surrounding region, and that the treaty would bring “confidence, legal certainty and stability” to the livelihoods of Gibraltarians and neighbouring communities, “without prejudice to legal positions on sovereignty and jurisdiction”.
“We are committed to work constructively and quickly with the objective of concluding a treaty in the coming months,” the joint statement said.
“That said, we repeat our position that a treaty must be on the right terms.”
“Gibraltar’s British identity, and the United Kingdom’s sovereignty, must be preserved.”
“We believe that with commitment and flexibility, a treaty can meet these requirements.”
“However, if this does not prove to be the case, or the deal on offer is not the right one for the UK and Gibraltar, we are fully prepared to accept the implications.”
“The UK will stand fully behind Gibraltar, its people and its economy in any scenario.”
Gibraltar and the UK envisage that the terms of the framework agreement will be underpinned by agreement in areas such as law enforcement and criminal justice.
“There is a shared interest in ensuring the Government of Gibraltar is able to effectively tackle crime and terrorism, bring criminals to justice and protect citizens within its jurisdiction,” the joint statement said.
They added too that the treaty should clarify the terms for the provision of services between Gibraltar and the EU, including the surrounding region.
“Consistent with this, we are prepared to make level playing field commitments, proportionate to the scale of Gibraltar’s economy and the levels of market access in the treaty, to ensure that unfair distortions do not occur,” the statement added.
The treaty will also need to include provisions for transport; environmental protection; social security coordination; citizens’ rights in particular for frontier workers; and data protection, the two governments said.
They added too that the treaty should contain “effective and proportionate” governance arrangements that reflected its nature and the judicial autonomy of the parties.
“This will include mechanisms for cooperation through a simple joint committee structure, dispute settlement and interpretation of the treaty,” they said.
The Foreign Secretary arrived at Gibraltar International Airport at lunchtime on Monday and was greeted on the tarmac by the Governor, Vice Admiral Sir David Steel, and the Chief Minister.
Prior to the JMC meeting he toured the Upper Rock, stopping at the Queen’s lookout and the Upper Galleries for a bird’s eye view of the runway and border area, before taking a short walk down Main Street.
Mr Raab was accompanied by Wendy Morton, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for European Neighbourhood and the Americas at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, as well as Hugh Elliott, the UK’s ambassador to Spain, and Theo Rycroft, the Director for EU Exit at the FCDO.
The delegation met too with the Leader of the Opposition, Keith Azopardi, and the Leader of Together Gibraltar, Marlene Hassan Nahon.
The Chief Minister said the Foreign Secretary’s presence on the Rock sent an important message about the UK’s close relationship with Gibraltar.
“It's not often that a foreign secretary makes time to come to Gibraltar to meet with the Government of Gibraltar and to instil confidence in the people of Gibraltar that the United Kingdom is working closely with the Government of Gibraltar on all of the issues of the day,” he said.
The Chief Minister expressed “the sincere gratitude” of the people of Gibraltar for the UK’s support not just in terms of the Covid-19 pandemic, the vaccination programme and the £500m sovereign guarantee, but with the Brexit process including guaranteeing continued market access for Gibraltar-based companies.
“Dominic Raab is very, very welcome to Gibraltar,” Mr Picardo said.
“He has demonstrated, as has his government, that he is a very good friend of Gibraltar, and the deputy Chief Minister and I have been delighted to see him in Gibraltar.”
“Gibraltar has faced many challenges in the past five years since the result of the Brexit referendum came in on the 24th of June, 2016, and an almost insurmountable challenge we might have all thought last year with the issues that were facing us with Covid.”
“Despite that, we have worked with the United Kingdom in close partnership, we are able to see a way through all of those challenges, and I think the message that I have wanted to give to the Foreign Secretary is that the people of Gibraltar have realised now more than ever how lucky we are to be British.”
The UK-Gibraltar Joint Ministerial Council is the highest negotiating forum for ministers to come together and discuss matters of shared importance.
It was originally formed to discuss the UK’s exit from the European Union, but now also acts as a forum for “agile discussion” between the UK and Gibraltar across the range of shared interests.
Mr Raab said it was “a great honour and a great pleasure” to participate in the first JMC meeting held in Gibraltar.
“We’ve got an excellent working relationship,” he said.
“I think the Government of Gibraltar have done exceptionally well throughout this crisis and I think it helps that on a personal level we've got such a good dynamic, served so ably by the officials and the various teams that support us.”
“And I think that bodes very well for the weeks, months and ultimately years ahead to make sure that Gibraltar can realise its full potential.”
Asked during the exchange with journalists whether his visit to the Rock was a presage to unwelcome news, Mr Raab shrugged off the question and replied: “There’s no lurking bad news for you at all, sorry to disappoint you.”