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Treaty negotiating teams set for ‘hybrid’ fifth round of talks

Photo by Eyleen Gomez

Negotiating teams for the UK, with Gibraltar, and the European Commission will reconvene this week to continue talks for a UK-EU treaty on the Rock’s future relations with the bloc.

The fifth round of negotiations is due to commence on Tuesday and will run until Thursday.

While some officials will meet in person in Brussels, others will join virtually to accommodate the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on travel and diary commitments.

“The meeting will take place from February 1 to February 3 in Brussels and virtually, so hybrid,” a European Commission official told the Chronicle.

Speaking in Brussels last week, Spain’s state secretary for the European Union at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Pascual Ignacio Navarro Ríos, underscored the “constructive spirit” in which the talks were taking place.

Without revealing any detail on the discussions, he expressed optimism that an agreement could be reached by March, the target date set by all sides in the negotiation.

“The discussions, the negotiations, are going well,” he told reporters during a brief doorstep interview on the sidelines of a General Affairs council meeting.

“There will be two further rounds of talks and these are unfolding in a constructive spirit.”

“Although there is no agreement yet, because evidently there are complicated issues, we expect sufficient progress in the coming weeks.”

Last week Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares met with Maroš Šefčovič, the Commission’s vice president who is leading the negotiating team in Brussels, to discuss progress on the Gibraltar negotiation.

While the EU has said that Spain must first agree to any deal with Gibraltar before the EU accepts it, Spanish government officials do not participate directly in the negotiations.

After the meeting, Mr Šefčovič tweeted: “Our European team is working hand in hand with the Spanish team to progress these conversations.”

Just a few days before meeting Mr Šefčovič, Mr Albares told a seminar in Madrid that “a good part” of the UK-EU negotiation on a treaty for Gibraltar had already been agreed, even while acknowledging there remained “loose ends” to resolve.

Mr Albares was pressed to offer some detail on the areas that remained to be agreed but he declined to shed any light on the talks.

"I start from the premise that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” he said.

"There are things that we could already start drafting [into a legal text]."

"There are some loose ends, we are going to try to overcome them."

The negotiators hope to reach an agreement allowing a common travel area between Gibraltar and the Schengen zone.

Spain, as neighbouring country, would take responsibility on behalf of the EU for Schengen immigration checks in Gibraltar, but Frontex officers would carry out the actual physical controls on the ground, at least for the first four years.

There is also the possibility of a bespoke arrangement on customs.

Reacting at the time to the Spanish minister’s comments, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo told the Chronicle that while a lot of work had already been done, negotiators still needed to “finalise agreement in key areas.”

He said the New Year's Eve framework remained “our lodestar” for a UK-EU agreement, adding Gibraltar and the UK remained committed to delivering “increased mobility and shared prosperity via that route.”

"The next ten weeks will see intense and determinative moments," Mr Picardo said.

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