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Spain’s new foreign minister, a former Brexit Sherpa and no stranger to Gib issues

Spain's new foreign minister, Jose Manuel Albares, with his predecessor, Arancha Gonzalez Laya, in the background during Monday's handover ceremony.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez appointed a new foreign minister at the weekend as part of a wider cabinet reshuffle, promoting into the post a career diplomat who represented his government during the Brexit negotiations and has worked on issues related to Gibraltar.

Jose Manuel Albares, 49, the current ambassador in Paris, takes over from Arancha Gonzalez Laya, who was widely criticised for her handling of a crisis with Morocco after agreeing for Western Sahara independence leader Brahim Ghali to be treated in a Spanish hospital.

The appointment comes at a critical time for Gibraltar, with talks for a UK/EU treaty for the Rock’s post-Brexit relations with the bloc yet to commence.

After the widely anticipated reshuffle was confirmed on Saturday, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo contacted Mrs Gonzalez Laya to thank her for what he described as her “positive approach” while in office, and to wish her well.

“I have thanked Arancha Gonzalez Laya for her approach and have wished her well on behalf of the People of Gibraltar,” Mr Picardo said.

“I look forward to the UK/EU treaty negotiations being positively supported by Snr Albares as he takes over in the Spanish Foreign Ministry.”

During a handover ceremony at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs on Monday, Mrs Gonzalez Laya flagged the New Year’s Eve framework agreement as one of the positive achievements of her time in office, despite the difficulties of Covid-19 and “media noise” that was “not always well-intentioned".

The framework agreement on Gibraltar “...represents, after 300 years, a turning point in our relations with the United Kingdom which, once it is signed - we hope - toward the end of this year, will mean the removal of the [border] fence".

During his first speech as foreign minister, Mr Albares said Spain must play a role in shaping international responses to global challenges such as climate change, migration, Covid-19 and digitalisation.

He said Spain was a country with “voice and weight” in Europe and was committed to building and strengthening the European Union.

Spain, he told his team at the ministry, was a democracy based on the rule of law and a degree of decentralisation that was “almost unique in the world”.

“Those are our values and that is our calling card,” Mr Albares said.

There was no mention of Gibraltar, but this is a subject on which Mr Albares is well versed.

As Spain’s Sherpa during the Brexit negotiations, Mr Albares will be familiar with the detail of the New Year’s Eve political agreement that will form the basis of treaty talks between the UK and the EU.

But there is no date yet set for those negotiations to commence, with the EU still to publish its negotiating mandate for the talks.

The reshuffle announced by Mr Sanchez means the average age of the new ministerial team is 50-years-old, and the proportion of women increased to 63%.

Isabel Rodriguez will become the new government spokesperson and territories minister, while Nadia Calvino kept the economy portfolio but was also promoted to First Deputy Prime Minister.
“The main task of this cabinet will be to consolidate the economic recovery and job creation,” Mr Sanchez said.

Another important departure was Mr Sanchez's chief of staff, Ivan Redondo, considered the prime minister's right-hand man and responsible for his electoral successes. He will be replaced by Oscar Lopez, a member of the Socialist Party.

The five members of Unidas Podemos, a minority partner in the coalition government, retained their positions.

Mr Sanchez took office in January 2020 after months of political instability that led to Spain's fourth election in four years.

After just two months in power, the coalition government had to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic which forced it to impose one of Europe's strictest lockdowns and damaged its tourism-dependent economy.

Mr Sanchez has also had to cope with the issue of Catalan independence, a conflict which has split Spain since an illegal referendum attempt in 2017.

Three weeks ago, the prime minister pardoned nine jailed Catalan pro-independence politicians.

Some figures in the negotiations over the pardons have been moved or lost their jobs. The justice minister has left the government while Miquel Iceta, who was in talks with the Catalan regional government, becomes culture minister.

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