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Spain’s airport move raises eyebrows in Brussels

The European Union, it appears, is getting frustrated with Spain’s position in the negotiation for a treaty on the Rock’s post-Brexit relationship with the bloc.

The root of that frustration, if recent public statements and a report at the weekend in Spanish newspaper El Mundo are anything to go by, is Madrid’s attempt to include new issues into the talks that go beyond what was agreed in the New Year’s Eve framework agreement.

The first clue that something was awry came back in December, when Spain’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Jose Manuel Albares, outlined what he has since described on numerous occasions as a “generous and global” proposal that Madrid, through the EU, has put on the table.

Mr Albares referred to “joint use” of the airport, a phrase that raised hackles in Gibraltar and London.

The New Year’s Eve framework, which stated unequivocally from the outset that nothing agreed in the treaty would impact each side’s longstanding positions on sovereignty, made no mention of joint use of the airport.

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo was quick to counter Mr Albares’ public statement with one of his own.

"Gibraltar,” Mr Picardo said at the time, “has in the past already rejected the concept of joint use of the airport but we continue committed to the principle of enhanced use of the airport for the benefit of all those around us.”

According to El Mundo, Spain’s insistence on the airport is now one of the main stumbling blocks to sealing agreement on a Gibraltar treaty, and it has not gone down well in Brussels.

In the face of “tough criticism” in Spain during earlier phases of the Brexit process on Gibraltar, El Mundo reported, the Spanish Government had now “also included the question of the airport, touching on a red line”.

“London has protested, and the sense in the Commission is that adding issues that impact on questions of sovereignty was not in the spirit of the initial agreement,” the report in El Mundo said.

The parties had agreed to seek “a satisfactory mutual understanding” but “…not to get into issues where agreement, after centuries of dispute, would be so difficult.”

El Mundo also referenced disagreement over practical immigration arrangements in the event a common travel area between Gibraltar and the Schengen zone could be reached, an issue that has been flagged on numerous occasions in the past.

It said too that the UK was “testing the patience” of Spanish negotiators with “contradictory” reports about progress in the treaty negotiation alongside statements about preparations for a non-negotiated outcome.

All of this should perhaps come as no surprise.

The final stage of the negotiation was always going to be difficult as each side sought to protect its position while extracting the maximum from any agreement without scuttling it altogether.

Since December, Mr Albares has said the ball is in the UK’s court and that if agreement is not reached, “then it won’t be because of Spain”.

Except, if the report in El Mundo is anything to go by – and it does have a ring of truth to it - it seems the onus may in fact be on Madrid.

The persistent references to a “global agreement” have left the Gibraltar and UK camps frustrated too, because it ignores the fact there have been counter proposals since, and that the negotiation process is in any event a fluid one.

The stakes could not be higher.

Politicians on all sides have repeatedly promised to deliver this so-called ‘area of shared prosperity’ and signalled that an agreement is close despite the remaining thorny issues.

On both sides of the border, huge expectation has been created and citizens and businesses alike are banking on negotiators delivering on their promise.

Ultimately, this tortuous process commenced with a desire to protect the interests of citizens here and in the Campo from a Brexit no one wanted.

Negotiators must not lose sight of that fact.

Despite the impasse, last week’s news of a breakthrough on Northern Ireland offers some grounds for optimism.

El Mundo said officials in Brussels see Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as “more serious, pragmatic and predictable” than his predecessors, and remain confident that the boost to UK/EU relations offered by agreement on Northern Ireland could lead to a similar result on Gibraltar.

The change of sentiment in Brussels was signalled clearly last week by European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, who said the agreement to rewrite Northern Ireland’s Brexit arrangements opened a “new chapter” in relations between the UK and the EU.

Explaining how Mr Sunak had succeeded where his predecessors had failed, she said there had been “a lot of goodwill”.

“Brussels backs Spain but trusts that perhaps it could be more flexible than in recent months, something on which it appears [Spain] is not going to cede,” the report in El Mundo said.

“But after seven years of disputes, the Commission would not understand if an agreement was reached on the Northern Ireland issue, infinitely more difficult and problematic, and not on the Rock.”

Neither, it has to be said, would the citizens of Gibraltar and the Campo de Gibraltar.

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