Spain wants to convince Gibraltarians to change their “mental habits” and drop their opposition to joint sovereignty, acting Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo said yesterday, even as he warned of an imminent end to EU freedoms enjoyed by Gibraltar.
Insisting that he was “charming, except when poked in the eye”, the caretaker minister delivered his message in uncharacteristically diplomatic terms that sought to present Spain’s co-sovereignty proposal as the solution to the Brexit challenge facing Gibraltar.
But prodded by journalists from the Chronicle and GBC, he left no doubt as to the hardline position beneath the cordial veneer.
“If the offer is not accepted, some things are automatic,” he said after meeting with Campo mayors in the Mancomunidad de Municipios in Algeciras.
“Gibraltar would become a third country for the EU, there is no other solution.”
“That means the border would become an external border of the EU.”
“Gibraltar would be outside the single market, the four freedoms would not apply.”
“That is what the Treaty says. It’s not what we say we’re going to do, it is what is going to happen and that is what we’re trying to avoid.”
Sr García-Margallo said it was “impossible” for Gibraltar to retain its EU freedoms after the UK left the EU.
“From this moment on, nothing will be the same,” he said.
In direct contradiction to what the British and Gibraltar Governments are arguing, he insisted Gibraltar would not be part of any deal between the UK and the EU. He added that Spain would “…block or veto any decision that is not in line with our interests.”
He quoted from the Treaty of Utrecht, highlighting the clause that says Spain would have first refusal should the UK ever renounce sovereignty over the Rock.
That, he added in a reference to Chief Minister Fabian Picardo’s belief that Gibraltar may be able to obtain different exit terms to Britain, “…is a notice to mariners who are searching for peculiar formulas to keep Gibraltar in the EU without the UK.”
Sr García-Margallo said the crunch point would come in March next year, the date when Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to trigger Article 50, setting in motion the two-year process to negotiate the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
“As soon as the scope of the negotiation between the UK and the EU is established, and it becomes crystal clear that Gibraltar is not part of that negotiation…then it will be the time for reasoning,” he said.
The caretaker minister was asked why Spain steadfastly refused to respect the wishes of the Gibraltarians to remain British.
He was pressed as to why his government had presented a proposal that hinged on a concept already firmly rejected by the people of Gibraltar, instead of searching for practical and realistic alternatives to foster good relations.
“You are very certain that this will be rejected, I’m not so sure that will be the case,” he replied.
“The hardest thing to change is a mental habit,” he added, in reference to Gibraltar’s firm resistance to any suggestion of a change in the Rock’s British sovereignty.
“When it becomes clear that what we are proposing is the only solution, then it will be understood.”
Sr García-Margallo was also asked to clarify whether the Spanish proposal envisaged a period of joint sovereignty ending in Gibraltar being returned to Spain.
This has been his longstanding position, but the proposal presented at the UN earlier this month and again yesterday made no reference to that point. Yesterday, he was non-committal in his response.
“We are going to put joint sovereignty in place for a defined period and then we will talk again as to what would be done,” he said.
“But we are never going to renounce our claim over Gibraltar.”
Spain’s acting Foreign Minister made his comments during his first visit to the Campo de Gibraltar since taking office.
He first went to the town council in Algeciras, where he was greeted by the PP mayor and senator Jose Ignacio Landaluce and presented with the city’s insignia.
He then met with Campo mayors, who presented him with a series of proposals for infrastructure investments and other initiatives to stimulate jobs and economic activity.
These investments were planned, Sr Garcia-Margallo said, “…though that does not mean they are budgeted for”.
Although the meeting was closed, the Chronicle understands that most of the mayors urged the minister to focus on dialogue and fostering good cross-border relations, rather than maintain an intransigent line on sovereignty.
That message was later echoed publicly by Miguel Ángel Vásquez, the spokesman for the Junta de Andalucia, who said “now is not the time for deceptions or to talk about co-sovereignty”.
Sr Vásquez said that the Junta would always stand by the central government on the issue of Gibraltar, but that now was a time to work “elbow to elbow” to find genuine solutions to face up to Brexit.
Sr García-Margallo also addressed a lunch hosted by the media group Grupo Joly, which publishes several newspapers including Europa Sur.
The Chronicle understands that over 100 invitations were sent to organisations and individuals in Gibraltar, including to the Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and Opposition Leader Daniel Feetham.
All declined to attend and the only Gibraltarians at the event were journalists and cameramen from the Chronicle and GBC.
As he was addressing the lunch, the Chief Minister was discussing with Spanish unions how best totackle the impact of Brexit on cross-border workers.
The co-sovereignty proposal set out yesterday by Sr García-Margallo differed little from that presented at the UN a fortnight ago.
It hinged, he said, on several “pillars”, namely:
– The UK and Spain would have joint responsibility for Gibraltar’s external relations, which would enable the Rock to access the EU single market;
– The UK and Spain would share responsibility for defence matters;
– Gibraltarians would be able to keep their British sovereignty and would be offered the option of dual Spanish nationality too;
– A large degree of autonomy for Gibraltarians to run their own affairs, a status envisaged by the Spanish constitution;
– An economic model that is compatible with EU legislation but which permits the continuation of Gibraltar “peculiarities”.
Sr García-Margallo, who has been a relentless critic of Gibraltar’s economic model over the past six years, said its continuation would be beneficial not just for Gibraltar but for the Campo.
Gibraltar’s small size left no doubt that its high GDP per capita was down to “…an economic system which our proposal seeks to preserve as far as possible,” he told guests at the Grupo Joly lunch.
He also listed a number of benefits that could arise from the deal, including unblocking EU legislation.
But he did not explain it is Spain that is stalling several legislative packages by reneging on its commitments under the Cordoba Agreement.
Sr García-Margallo received applause from the audience for some hardline comments, including his explanation that the reason for closing the Cervantes Institute here was because “Gibraltar is Spanish territory”.