UK, Spain and Gibraltar reaffirm commitment to treaty and 'edge closer' to resolving differences
The UK, Spain and Gibraltar publicly reaffirmed their commitment to achieving a treaty for the Rock’s future relations with the EU “as soon as possible”, in ministerial statements that also sharpened focus on the complex areas of disagreement that remain to be resolved.
The message came in tandem press conferences in Madrid and Gibraltar, the first delivered by James Cleverly and Jose Manuel Albares, the foreign ministers of the UK and Spain respectively, and the second at No.6 Convent Place by Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.
In the run-up to the press briefings there had been wide expectation of an announcement of a breakthrough in the negotiation, perhaps even of a deal.
In the event, it was a reaffirmation of a message that each side has delivered separately and repeatedly over recent months.
But this time, it was a coordinated message delivered in unison, a clear signal of joint purpose despite the shared goal still being out of reach.
In Madrid, Mr Albares stood next to Mr Cleverly and spoke of the UK’s “constructive spirit” to reach an agreement that was “beneficial for all”, insisting the negotiation was progressing well.
“We are talking about very complex issues that involve different opinions,” Mr Albares said.
“But of course, I would never allow the negotiation to continue if I detected bad faith on the part of the United Kingdom or if there was still no credible progress.”
Asked about the time it was taking after 11 formal rounds of talks, he said: “I’ve never fixed a specific date [for talks to conclude one way or another],” though he added too, as he has done in the past, that “it’s clear we cannot be in an eternal negotiation”.
On the areas of disagreement, he said “we are going to carry on negotiating”, adding that this “requires discretion”.
“Every time we have met there has been progress and today we are closer right now than at the start of the meeting.”
“That’s why we are here together today. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here together.”
That position was echoed by Mr Cleverly, who said “significant progress has been made”.
“I think it’s important to state that,” he told reporters, adding this included “discussions on the text of the treaty and its implementation”.
“We were discussing how this could unleash an unprecedented level of economic growth for all those in the region,” Mr Cleverly said.
“And we are fully invested in agreeing a deal as soon as possible and we’re committed to doing so, and I know that is an ambition shared by the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, who of course is an integral part of the process.”
“I want to reaffirm my commitment to the people of Gibraltar that we will not agree anything that will compromise sovereignty, and it is possible to agree a treaty which protects our respective positions on sovereignty.”
Mr Cleverly said all sides had committed to “work intensively” toward a “positive outcome that will be to the benefit of all”.
Responding to questions, Mr Cleverly said the proposal under discussion still needed to be “polished”.
“Much progress has been made, but of course if the proposal were completely acceptable, we would have already accepted it,” he said.
“The fact is there are still elements of it where we still have modest differences.”
“Ultimately, it is always worth holding onto the most important element of this, which is our shared desire to seek resolution.”
“What all of us want to see is to have a mobility arrangement with the Schengen zone to facilitate the effortless, easy and mutually beneficial flow of people, of goods, of services, because that is in everybody’s interests to achieve.”
Earlier the two ministers had met for talks not just on Gibraltar but on the deep bilateral relationship between the two countries, which both highlighted in statements to reporters.
When the discussion touched on Gibraltar, Mr Picardo, Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia and Attorney General Michael Llamas, who was fresh back from the latest UK/EU round in Brussels, joined the Madrid meeting virtually.
Mr Cleverly made clear to reporters that Spain and the EU were negotiating with the UK and “with Gibraltar”.
In No.6 Convent Place, Mr Picardo too sent a similar message, dismissing any suggestion that the press conferences on Wednesday were a repetition of earlier statements with no sign of progress.
"I don't think this is more of the same, I think this is us moving closer together," Mr Picardo said.
"In fact, what you might say is that you are starting to see the areas of disagreement, [but] there are huge areas of agreement behind that."
"What we're doing is edging ever closer and getting to the final stage in this process when we can declare that we have an agreement."
"But we've all recommitted ourselves, despite not being able to reach agreement by the time that we might have wanted to, that we do want to continue to seek that agreement, to negotiate our way around the issues of dispute, and we're all committed to ensuring that none of the parties around the table lose, and that all of them win."
"And that is a lot."
"We could be seeing a completely different process before us in the context of the 300 years of history that we know that we have."
The agreement that negotiators are trying to seal envisages a common travel area between Gibraltar and the Schengen area, and not, as has been reported in some media, an extension of the Schengen area to Gibraltar.
Mr Picardo insisted that all sides were agreed on this position, even if it was not yet clear how those immigration arrangements would be put into practice.
But the conceptual complexity of such an arrangement was clear when Mr Albares referred to an “extension” of Schengen and the thorny subject of Spanish involvement in Schengen immigration checks in Gibraltar.
Under any common travel area, Spain would be the guarantor of those Schengen checks in Gibraltar, although the New Year’s Eve agreement envisaged Frontex taking the primary role on the ground at least for the first four years of any treaty.
The practical arrangements of those checks remain a key issue to resolve, though Mr Albares appeared to step back from earlier comments to El Pais two weeks ago in which he had insisted Spanish officers would be involved on the ground.
“It’s evident that if there is an extension of the Schengen space, its application and the controls will have to be carried out in the name of the European Union by authorities authorised to do so, in this case the Spanish police,” the Spanish minister said.
“But I also want to be clear on the fact that in [the New Year’s Eve agreement] of December 2020, it was agreed that during an initial four-year transitional period, the Spanish police would be assisted by Frontex, and that will be respected.”
Pressed on this point in Gibraltar, Mr Picardo insisted that despite the differences in language used to express this complex idea, all sides were in unison.
"There isn't an extension of Schengen," Mr Picardo said, adding there was agreement on this issue.
"We have all proposed the same model, and that is that Gibraltar has in effect a common travel area between its immigration zone and the Schengen immigration zone,” he said.
"There isn't an extension of the Schengen immigration zone, although for people who are in one, they will be able to be in the other."
"We have to be careful not to get caught up with the use of language in a way that might somehow obscure the principles."
"What you're pointing at is actually, ironically, although the language might not suggest it, an area of agreement between the parties."
Mr Picardo played down too recent events at the border, where some air passengers with British or non-EU passports were turned back, at least initially, when crossing into Spain to travel to Malaga when their flights were diverted due to bad weather.
"There was an issue, it was resolved quickly, we're trying to ensure those issues don't arise again," he said.
"There are, of course, enemies of this process, there are people who don't want to see this process succeed."
"What you saw today is three of the people who are committed to making this process succeed, once again committing themselves and their governments to ensuring it succeeds, and that's a lot."
The Chief Minister insisted that all were committed “to ensure that failure is not an option”.
He spoke of a “generosity of spirit” that sought to deliver a deal and avoid falling “into the pettiness of the past”, or using the process to “avenge a wrong done to us 30 or 40 years ago in a way that might enable us to score a point today".
"That will take us nowhere," he said.
"Neither the rancour of the past or the nostalgia for the past will take us to the future."
"We all have to look forward, we have to look forward together."
"This area is already a dynamo [and] it can be a catalyst for even more growth.”
"We can achieve that, but we have to find a way around the final areas of disagreement."
"If this were easy, it would have been done already."
The areas of disagreement were highlighted in the contrast between the opening statements in Madrid and Gibraltar from Mr Albares and Mr Picardo.
The Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs referenced the aspirations set out in the latest proposal from the EU in the negotiation, something he had already done a fortnight ago when he met with Campo mayors.
He spoke, for example, of “joint use” of the airport and highlighted too what Spain regards as “discrimination” of pensioners arising from Community Care.
In Gibraltar, Mr Picardo was swift to rebut those aspirations, even while emphasising his government’s commitment to find a way through them.
"Gibraltar 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,” he said.
And he said the Gibraltar Government would not accept any discrimination against any individual or worker, "in particular pensioners".
"There are no such discriminations in Gibraltar and Community Care is misunderstood by those who believe that it leads to any discrimination," he added.
Mr Picardo said that despite the gaps, there was more common ground between the two sides in the negotiation.
"Despite the fact that there are areas where we continue to have disagreement, we have now many more areas of agreement," he said.
"So therefore, if we can agree, Gibraltar is ready, now, to do a safe, secure and beneficial agreement, but it must be safe, secure and beneficial."
In their statements, the three ministers appeared to be signalling that talks could drag on into 2023.
While there was never a deadline set in stone, all parties had hoped to reach agreement by the end of this month, conscious that next year will bring elections in both Gibraltar and Spain.
"Of course it can have an impact," Mr Picardo said of the busy political calendar in 2023.
"It could propel us to move more quickly, it could prevent us from doing things."
"None of us want to be prevented from doing things, we all want to achieve things."
"We must understand, of course, that we all have a political life which is as long as the lifetime of our respective parliaments."
"I'll be asking the people of Gibraltar to entrust us once again with running Gibraltar and continuing the negotiations."
"Anybody who thought the [GSLP/Liberal] Government of Gibraltar...might be a soft touch in this negotiation will now have realised that that is far from it."
"Therefore, I think 2023 is a year also filled with opportunities for those politicians who are engaged in this process, to show the people that we represent that we've done right by them and that we deserve their trust again."
"So there is also an opportunity in an election year."
And he hinted too that despite the gaps, agreement might still be possible this year.
"If you go back to where we were in 2020 on the 15th of December, we were further away from achieving the New Year's Eve agreement then than we are now from achieving an agreement on a treaty," he said.
"So discard nothing, everything is possible."