UK and EU on collision course over Gibraltar and Brexit transition
Gibraltar will not be excluded from any aspect of the UK’s Brexit negotiations, Prime Minister Theresa May insisted again yesterday, after the European Commission appeared to indicate that Spain would have a veto on any transitional arrangements covering the Rock.
The UK and Gibraltar insist the Rock is covered by the UK’s Brexit negotiations and withdrawal agreement, which will include any transitional arrangements to soften departure from the bloc.
But Spain is pushing its European partners for a controlling voice on anything related to Gibraltar, in a move that threatens to pitch the UK against the EU on decisions affecting the Rock’s future.
Mrs May was addressing the House of Commons shortly after the European Commission published negotiating guidelines for the next phase of the Brexit talks.
The guidelines, which are still subject to negotiation and have yet to be adopted by the European Council, reiterate the Clause 24 Gibraltar veto granted by the EU to Spain last April.
That clause states that after withdrawal, no future agreement between the UK and the EU can be applied to Gibraltar without prior agreement between Spain and the UK.
Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis, briefing the seven mayors of the Campo de Gibraltar on the Brexit talks yesterday, highlighted agreements on protecting citizens’ rights including those of cross-border workers. But he also stressed Spain’s hopes for bilateral talks with the UK on the Rock’s future relations with the EU.
The EU decision to again refer to Clause 24 prompted a stern reaction from the Gibraltar Government, which accused Madrid of “outright bad faith” in its approach to Gibraltar-related issues within the Brexit talks.
The guidelines do not explicitly set out the EU’s expectations on Gibraltar and transitional arrangements after the withdrawal date, but the Commission is clearly leaning toward Madrid’s stance.
At a press conference in Brussels, the EC’s main Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, was asked whether he expected Spain to agree with the UK before Gibraltar was included in any transition deal.
“We have reproduced in the negotiating guidelines the exact phrase decided upon by the European Council and I can confirm to you that for the transition period, as for the rest, I will work to reach decisions which will be taken by the 27 unanimously and by consensus,” Mr Barnier said.
“We, the 27 members, have – and I will say no more on this issue – always worked striving for consensus and unity and to take all decisions within the framework of this consensus and unity and we will continue to do so.”
“Therefore the spirit of April’s guidelines is reaffirmed on this particular point in the document agreed on today.
The Commission’s position on Gibraltar prompted a question in the House of Common’s during Mrs May’s weekly question and answer session, highlighting the cross-party backing enjoyed by Gibraltar in the UK parliament and drawing a firm reaction from the UK Government.
Highlighting the “strong affection and support” for Gibraltar in the Commons, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, an MP with the Democratic Unionist Party, did not mince his words.
He asked the Prime Minister: “In light of the guidelines published this morning, will she give a commitment not to enter into an agreement with the European Union that excludes Gibraltar from the transitional or implementation arrangements and periods?”
Even before publication of the guidelines, Mrs May had earlier this week made clear that Gibraltar would be covered by the UK’s Brexit deal. She underlined the point yesterday.
“We and the EU have been clear that Gibraltar is covered by the withdrawal agreement and our Article 50 exit negotiations and just to confirm what I said on Monday, as we negotiate this, we will be negotiating to ensure that the relationships are there for Gibraltar as well,” she said.
“We are not going to exclude Gibraltar from our negotiations for either the implementation period or the future agreement.”
“I can give the honourable gentleman that assurance.”
No.6 Convent Place welcomed the Prime Minister’s assurances in parliament this week and said they had to be seen in conjunction with earlier comments.
Officials highlighted the “unequivocal commitment” given by Brexit Secretary of State David Davis to Chief Minister Fabian Picardo in April, that the UK “will not do the deal” with the EU on future trade if it does not include Gibraltar.
They also pointed to the Prime Minister’s own assurances on National Day this year to “safeguard the Rock, its people and its economy”.
“Taken together, these assurances are a demonstration of the strength of the support for Gibraltar from the current British Government and all parties in the United Kingdom Parliament,” said Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia.
Dr Garcia, who is currently acting Chief Minister while Mr Picardo is on paternity leave, said the Gibraltar Government had been in discussion with UK ministers and officials ahead of the publication of the EC’s guidelines yesterday.
He said the government was not surprised by the inclusion of a reference to Clause 24, which Spain had unsuccessfully tried to have applied to the withdrawal agreement as well as the future trade arrangements.
“The negative motivation and outright bad faith that Madrid has shown by seeking a veto over the application of the transition agreement to Gibraltar is unfortunately characteristic,” Dr Garcia said.
“Spain has absolutely nothing to gain by this.”
“Current and future Spanish workers have nothing to gain by this and the uncertainty created by their government as a result.”
“Indeed, the European Union itself have nothing to gain by this. All that they have done is slap in the face a small community that voted by 96% to remain in the European Union.”
Dr Garcia said the “purported” Gibraltar veto granted by the EU to Madrid was not in the interests of Spain itself or EU nationals who crossed daily into Gibraltar to work.
He said the Gibraltar Government’s position was that any transitional period which largely extends the existing relationship of the EU “Member State United Kingdom” until the end of 2020 should similarly extend the existing relationship of Gibraltar with the EU until that time.
“We will continue to work with the United Kingdom to secure a Brexit that works for Gibraltar and for all sectors of our community and all nationalities represented in our labour market, despite Spain’s predatory attitude,” Dr Garcia said.
Mrs May’s assurances also welcomed by Gibraltar’s main opposition party, although there was a clear sense that the UK must go further.
Keith Azopardi, the Leader of the GSD, said greater clarity of commitment was needed from Britain.
“Mrs May's welcome comments fall short of clear undertaking that Gib will be unconditionally included in any EU deal,” Mr Azopardi tweeted.
“That is what we need.”
There were also reactions in Brussels itself to the latest developments in the Brexit process.
“We fully expect Gibraltar to be part of the transition period and for the EU to be cooperative in negotiating this arrangement,” said Conservative MEP Ashley Fox.
“It's in no-ones interest that Gibraltar suddenly leaves the EU in March 2019 without time for businesses and workers to adapt.”
“If we are to reach an agreement that protects Gibraltar's sovereignty and their interests then we must enter these talks with the spirit of co-operation, not confrontation, with Spain and the rest of the EU.”
“However, under no circumstances will the UK discuss Gibraltar's place in the British family.”
Mr Fox added: “The UK government has been clear that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, that includes Gibraltar's participation in the transition period and the future arrangement.”