Gibraltar gets its own last-minute Brexit deal on borders

MADRID – The recent Brexit trade agreement has brought relief to Britain and the European Union, but some issues have been left on the negotiating table – including what to do with Gibraltar, the British territory at the southern tip of Spain whose sovereignty has long been disputed by Madrid word. .

Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya on Thursday announced a close deal with negotiators in Britain and Gibraltar that would avoid the possibility of travelers and goods being stranded at the border from Friday.

The draft agreement will allow for passport-free travel between Gibraltar and Spain. As part of the agreement, a European agency will monitor sea and air arrivals in Gibraltar. People arriving from Britain will have to undergo passport control as of now.

“We understood the need to manage our interdependence,” she said. González Laya said at a news conference. While insisting that ‘sovereignty is inalienable for both parties’, she describes the agreement as a solid basis for the future relationship between Spain and the United Kingdom. ‘

Spain has demanded that talks on Gibraltar be separated from key Brexit negotiations between Britain and the European Union.

Gibraltar is known as the rock because of the predominant feature of its 2.6 square mile area. He has long beaten military and economic importance above his weight, as a gateway to the Mediterranean, but also a financial hub that applies significantly lower corporate taxes than Britain. .

Because of their geographical isolation, Gibraltar residents and officials feared the aftermath of Brexit ahead of the 2016 referendum, in which 96 per cent of Gibraltar voters wanted to stay in the European Union, but Britons generally voted to leave.

Negotiators in Madrid, London and Gibraltar – working on video conferencing – have struggled in recent weeks to meet a January 1 deadline for an agreement to ensure the smooth movement of goods and people in and out of Gibraltar, even if Britain is no longer part of the European country. Union.

Issues, including the mutual recognition of work permits and driver’s licenses, were sorted out relatively easily, but the firm point was what the border of Gibraltar means and who should police it.

For fear of border controls that could isolate and economically squeeze it, Gibraltar wanted unrestricted access to the Spanish mainland, similar to that enjoyed between European countries that are part of the Schengen area, in which travel controls have only been reintroduced in emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic.

There are now limited border controls in Gibraltar, as Britain has never been part of the Schengen agreement. After Brexit, Spain wanted to ensure that the area did not become a check-free access point for people traveling to the Spanish mainland.

Mrs. González Laya said it could take about six months before the agreement reached on Thursday in a new treaty between the European Union and Britain on Gibraltar, but she promised that Spain would “keep traffic as smooth as possible” across the border. of the area in the meantime.

“We believe we can now restore our relationship with Spain and put it in a more positive light,” Gibraltar leader Fabian Picardo told a separate news conference after the agreement was reached. “We are going to fend off the worst effects of a hard Brexit.”

The talks slowed down because Spain wanted to take control of the police, but Gibraltar suggested instead that it be handled by Frontex, a European Union agency that monitors the borders of countries in the Schengen area.

According to the compromise announced on Thursday, Schengen will be applied to Gibraltar for the next four years with Spain as the responsible member for the control of Schengen, in collaboration with Frontex, Ms. González Laya said. Frontex officials will control passengers at the port and airport of Gibraltar.

Officials in Brussels were not involved in the latest Gibraltar talks, while the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain insisted that a new border agreement should not affect British sovereignty and the free flow between Britain and Gibraltar.

The extensive negotiations over Gibraltar have irritated those who have to cross the border daily, and businesses transporting goods across the border have already suffered as a result of the pandemic.

‘It’s part of the eternal dispute over Gibraltar’s sovereignty, but the negotiators really had to be able to resolve it sooner and we did not have to force the year to end in a situation of complete border uncertainty, when we were already at a weakening rate. of coronavirus in Gibraltar, ”says Jesús Moya, a Spanish employee of a food distribution company in Gibraltar, who commutes from his home in Spain. “Normal trade flows are essential, not only for Gibraltar but also for Spain.”

About 2,000 of Gibraltar’s nearly 34,000 inhabitants have now been isolated from the coronavirus, and authorities there decided before Christmas to close the border with Britain, to limit the spread of a new and apparently more contagious virus variant.

Because of their geographical isolation at the southern tip of Spain, Gibraltar residents and officials feared the consequences of the Brexit ahead of the 2016 referendum, which was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of Britons but rejected by 96 percent of Gibraltar voters .

Britain has dealt with Gibraltar’s defense and international relations since gaining control of the area in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. The Government of Gibraltar has significant autonomy over trade and fiscal issues, which has helped it become a European hub for financial services and online gaming.

In 1969, under General Francisco Franco, Spain closed the border with Gibraltar, leaving the area dependent on supplies and funding from Britain. Although the border has not been blocked in recent years, Spain has occasionally created significant problems for Gibraltar by enforcing tighter customs controls and leaving people and vehicles waiting for hours to cross. In the past decade, Britain and Spain have also been fighting over access to the waters of Gibraltar.

But every Spanish tightening of controls at the Gibraltar land border is also hurting about 10,000 workers like Mr. Moya commuting there daily, mostly from nearby towns that form an economically depressed area known as the Campo de Gibraltar.

“We are responding to the aspirations of our citizens,” she said. González Laya said. The agreement will enable residents of nearby Spanish towns to “pass a sigh of relief”, she added, while avoiding a situation in which residents of Gibraltar are in danger of entering “the only hard Brexit border”. Europe to face, although they overwhelmingly voted to stay in the bloc.