Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson met his Spanish counterpart, Alfonso Dastis Quecedo, for the first time yesterday, but Gibraltar was not raised during their brief encounter.
The two men met on the sidelines of a gathering of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.
It was their first meeting since Sr Dastis was appointed to succeed José Manuel García-Margallo as Spain’s Minister for Foreign Affairs earlier this month.
The few details that emerged of their exchange in Brussels hinted at a possible change in focus on Gibraltar at the Spanish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, although Sr Dastis insisted Spain’s underlying policy had not shifted.
When Mr Johnson first met Sr García-Margallo last July, the then Spanish minister was quick to raise Gibraltar and received a firm reply from the Foreign Secretary, who told him the UK’s position on sovereignty was unchanged and that Britain would defend Gibraltar’s right to remain British.
In contrast yesterday, neither Sr Dastis nor Mr Johnson mentioned Gibraltar.
“They met and they had a discussion on a number of issues, but Gibraltar was not raised,” a Foreign Office spokesman said.
Speaking at a press conference after the meeting, Sr Dastis told reporters there had been only an “oblique” reference to Gibraltar.
“Spain’s policy toward Gibraltar has not changed and Mr Johnson is perfectly aware of it, so there is no need to focus or fret exclusively on one subject,” he said.
“I will have many opportunities to talk to Johnson in the coming weeks and months.”
“We only had a few minutes and for that reason, it wasn’t necessary to talk in detail about the situation with Gibraltar.
Since his appointment, Sr Dastis has made no public statement on Gibraltar other than to avoid answering questions on the matter fielded by reporters.
Although it is still early days, that has fuelled speculation in Spain that Gibraltar will not be prominent on the Spanish foreign ministry’s agenda, in the way that it was during Sr García-Margallo’s time in office.
Just yesterday, the Spanish online publication El Confidencial Digital cited sources at the foreign ministry in Madrid saying that Gibraltar “will not be a priority matter” for Sr Dastis.
“They consider that his Europeanist vocation will mean he will avoid a direct confrontation with the European Union and the United Kingdom, at the expense of the claim over the Rock,” El Confidencial Digital reported.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one Spanish politician who is not changing tack on Gibraltar is Sr García-Margallo himself.
Yesterday he dedicated part of a wide-ranging interview with the state-owned news agency Efe to once again set out his position on Gibraltar, adding that he had discussed his co-sovereignty plan – rejected by Gibraltar and Britain – with Sr Dastis.
Sr García-Margallo, who confessed he would follow his successor’s actions on Gibraltar with “special love and attention”, insisted on his belief that no Spanish Government would fail to “take advantage of the unique and historic opportunity” offered by Brexit to push Spain’s position on Gibraltar.
In a separate interview with Europa Press – Sr García-Margallo was promoting a new book – the former minister said the strategy he had mapped out was like “a penalty in the final minutes of a match”.
“If we miss it, I will feel the frustration of a professional who sees a potentially decisive penalty kicked up into the stands,” he said.
Sr García-Margallo also repeated his belief that once the UK invoked Article 50 and formally began the process of withdrawal, Gibraltar would be left outside the framework of the deal negotiated by Britain.
That is a position at odds with the British Government, which insists Gibraltar will be fully involved in preparations for Brexit and will be part of the UK’s deal.