Gibraltar Will get Its Personal Final-Minute Brexit Deal on Borders

MADRID – The recent Brexit trade deal eased the UK and the European Union, but some issues remained on the negotiating table – including measures against Gibraltar, the British territory on the southern tip of Spain, whose sovereignty has long been contested by Madrid.

On Thursday, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya announced a last-minute deal with negotiators in the UK and Gibraltar that avoids the possibility of travelers and goods being stranded at the border from Friday.

The draft contract enables passport-free travel between Gibraltar and Spain. Under the agreement, a European agency will monitor sea and air arrivals in Gibraltar. People arriving from the UK will have to go through passport control like now.

“We understand the need to cope with our interdependence,” said González Laya at a press conference. While she insisted that “sovereignty is inalienable for both sides”, she described the deal as “a solid foundation for future relations between Spain and the United Kingdom”.

Spain had pushed for the Gibraltar talks to be separated from the main Brexit negotiations between Britain and the European Union.

Known as the Rock for its dominant property on its 2.6 square miles of territory, Gibraltar has long surpassed its military and economic importance as a gateway to the Mediterranean, but also as a financial center that applies a much lower corporate tax rate than Britain.

Due to their geographic isolation, Gibraltar residents and officials were concerned about the consequences of Brexit ahead of the 2016 referendum, in which 96 percent of Gibraltar voters tried to stay in the European Union but the British overall voted to leave.

The negotiators in Madrid, London and Gibraltar, who worked by video conference, have tried in the last few weeks to exceed the deadline for an agreement of January 1 to ensure the smooth movement of goods and people in and out of Gibraltar, even if Great Britain is no longer part of the European Union.

Issues like mutual recognition of work permits and driver’s licenses were relatively easy to resolve, but the sticking points were what the Gibraltar border means and who should oversee it.

Gibraltar feared border controls that could limit it in isolation and economically, and wanted control-free access to mainland Spain, similar to that between European countries that are part of the Schengen area, where travel controls only occur in emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic.

There are currently limited border controls in Gibraltar as the UK was never part of the Schengen Agreement. After Brexit, Spain wanted to ensure that the area does not become a check-free entry point for people traveling on to mainland Spain.

Ms González Laya said it could take about six months for Thursday’s deal to be formalized in a new treaty between the European Union and the UK on Gibraltar, but she promised that Spain would have traffic across the territory’s border as fluid as possible the meantime will keep it possible.

“We believe that we may now be able to reset our relationship with Spain and put it in a more positive light,” said Fabian Picardo, the chairman of Gibraltar, at a separate press conference after the deal was signed. “We will avert the worst effects of a hard Brexit.”

Talks had slowed because Spain wanted to take over border police, but Gibraltar instead suggested that they be handled by Frontex, a European Union agency that monitors the borders of countries in the Schengen area.

As part of the compromise announced on Thursday, “Schengen will be used in Spain with Gonaltar as the member responsible for the control of Schengen in cooperation with Frontex for the next four years,” said González Laya. Frontex officers will control passengers in the port and airport of Gibraltar.

Officials in Brussels were not involved in the recent Gibraltar talks, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s British government had insisted that a new border agreement should not affect British sovereignty and free movement between Britain and Gibraltar.

The extended negotiations on Gibraltar have angered those who have to cross the border on a daily basis, and companies transporting goods across the border are already suffering from the effects of the pandemic.

“This is part of the perpetual dispute over Gibraltar’s sovereignty, but the negotiators really should have resolved this sooner and not have to force us to end the year in a situation of total border uncertainty where we are already facing a deteriorating rate of Coronavirus in Gibraltar, “said Jesús Moya, a Spanish employee at a food distribution company in Gibraltar who commutes from his home in Spain. “A normal flow of trade is essential not only for Gibraltar, but also for Spain.”

About 2,000 of Gibraltar’s nearly 34,000 residents are now isolating because of the coronavirus, and authorities there decided before Christmas to close the border with the UK to contain the spread of a new and seemingly contagious variant of the virus.

Given their geographical isolation on the southern tip of Spain, Gibraltar residents and officials were concerned about the consequences of Brexit ahead of the 2016 referendum, which was approved by an overall majority of British but opposed by 96 percent of Gibraltar voters.

Great Britain has taken over the defense and international relations of Gibraltar since gaining control of the territory in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. The Government of Gibraltar has considerable commercial and tax autonomy, which has helped it become a European hub for financial services and online gaming.

In 1969 Spain, under General Francisco Franco, closed the border with Gibraltar and left the area dependent on supplies and funding from Great Britain. While Spain has not barricaded the border in recent years, it has occasionally caused significant problems for Gibraltar by forcing stricter customs controls and keeping people and vehicles waiting for hours. For the past decade, Britain and Spain have also argued over access to the waters off Gibraltar.

But any tightening of Spanish controls on the Gibraltar land border also harms around 10,000 workers like Mr Moya who commute there daily, mostly from nearby towns that make up an economically disadvantaged area known as the Campo de Gibraltar.

“We answer the aspirations of our citizens,” said Ms. González Laya. The deal would allow residents of nearby Spanish cities to “breathe a sigh of relief,” she added, while avoiding a situation where Gibraltar residents ran the risk of facing “the only hard Brexit border” in Europe, though they overwhelmingly voted to stay on the bloc.

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