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Opinion & Analysis

Treaty talks: ‘None the wiser, but a lot better informed’

by Christine Vasquez
I’m reminded of a story about a judge, who when having listened to a lengthy submission, rather arrogantly said, “I’m none the wiser”- to which the young lawyer at the end of the delivery promptly replied, “None the wiser Your Honour, but a lot better informed.”

That sums up how I felt on my return from having covered the visit to Madrid of the mayors, the Mancomunidad and the Junta, and their meeting with the Spanish Foreign Secretary.

As journalists, we try to read between the lines, try to grasp nuances and try to join the dots. This somewhat satisfies personal curiosity. At the end of the day, we work on facts.

My first stop was to the British Embassy, which is housed together with the Canadian, Australian and Dutch embassies in Spain’s fourth tallest building, the Torre Emperador.

A key player in the negotiations, the British Ambassador to Madrid, Hugh Elliott, was not even contemplating a no deal, telling me good progress was being made and that all sides were very committed to making it work.

A very positive first day.

Day two was when the Campo delegation would hold its meeting with the Spanish Foreign Minister.

I had previously been told no statements would be forthcoming. Nevertheless, having made the trip to Madrid, we staked out the Spanish Foreign Ministry’s new premises in the Sede de Marqués de Salamanca to doorstep the delegation, and were told that plans had changed and that the Foreign Minister would be giving a statement after all.

Three questions would be allowed, but journalists had to decide amongst themselves who would ask them. There was some negotiating needed here, as some press members wanted to take the opportunity to ask about Venezuela - something José Manuel Albares was not having, saying the issue at hand was too important to Campo and Gibraltar residents to be sidelined.

Mr Albares, true to his position, was a real diplomat. His tone was measured, talking of the ‘territory’ of Gibraltar. It was reassuring to hear him say that negotiations were very advanced and positive, and most importantly that Spain’s proposal respected every side’s legal position.

As I rushed across Madrid to the train station, trying to file the footage as I went, a statement was released by the Foreign Ministry. Along with what had already been said that morning, it said that with the removal of the physical frontier, Spain had to control Gibraltar’s external borders and had to exercise functions needed to protect the integrity and security of the Schengen space. The fact that Spain is the member state responsible for Schengen is not new, having been repeated ad nauseam by the Chief Minister, but it did make me question the role of Frontex, which was unmentioned.

Meanwhile, Parliament was in session.

Fabian Picardo delivered a statement outlining the United Kingdom and Gibraltar’s own proposals. He told Parliament there was no question of anyone controlling Gibraltar’s frontiers other than Gibraltar. Neither the UK nor Gibraltar would concede to anything different, he said.

The Schengen parties, he added, would not concede to anyone having control over a Schengen frontier other than a Schengen high contracting party or an emanation of the European Union. Alarm bells continued ringing over the weekend, with Spanish press reports quoting the Spanish Foreign Minister as saying controls at the port and the airport would be carried out by Spanish police. The same article stated this position is unacceptable to the UK and Gibraltar. This of course begs the question of how this circle can be squared, and what formula can be arrived at which marries these views.

The Foreign Minister had spoken of a level playing field, saying this was the very basis of joint prosperity - and it was interesting to note the Chief Minister’s intervention in Parliament that no-one should want Gibraltar compromising on the levers of prosperity needed to ensure there is prosperity to be shared. This has been an area of concern for businesses in Gibraltar which have warned against killing the golden goose.

But the main message we are to take from the Foreign Minister’s statement is that it could very much be the end of the road, with an almost ‘hasta aqui llegue’ take-it-or-leave-it deadline. Mr Albares described Spain’s proposal as practical and reasonable, saying that what’s clear is that we can not stay in this situation indefinitely. Speaking to GBC on Monday, Fabian Picardo said there is no established deadline and that it would not be Gibraltar who left the table.

In Parliament, the Leader of the Opposition, Keith Azopardi, stated the ‘political’ statement could be the Spanish government upping the ante. The Chief Minister agreed, saying that for the sake of finalising the negotiation, parties may look for ways to stack the odds in their favour. Now, he told GBC, is the time to keep calm and professional, and not panic towards the end of the process. Mr Picardo expressed confidence that the European Union’s concerns could be accommodated by the UK/ Gibraltar proposals.

A senior diplomat told me not to put too much emphasis on the official negotiating rounds, as much is done outside them. It is, however, concerning that there may only be space for one, maybe two, before the for now apocryphal and maybe one-sided deadline of the end of the year, with issues apparently still on the table that we’ve been hearing of throughout the process.

The political posturing intensifies, and as the pressure is piled on, press statements are increasingly confusing and, at times, contradictory.

The Chief Minister gives a categorical assurance that no red lines will be crossed and that neither Gibraltar nor the UK will agree to anything that’s not acceptable to Gibraltar. The Government, he says, will be poring over the official negotiating documents and not press reports.

We are not privy to these - and remain none the wiser, if a lot better informed.

Christine Vasquez is GBC’s News Editor. Tonight’s Viewpoint at 9.30pm will look in detail at the latest developments in the treaty negotiation.

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