Spain’s former Foreign Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, recognised yesterday that Spain may ‘lose the battle’ to have Gibraltar excluded from the scope of the UK’s negotiations to leave the EU.
Sr García-Margallo made the admission during a television interview, the latest in a string of media appearances that he is using to promote a new book.
As has become the norm, he was asked about Gibraltar and whether he was disappointed that his successor, Alfonso Dastis Quecedo, had pushed Gibraltar down on his list of priorities.
“I’ve spoken to him and he knows perfectly well when this match is going to be played,” Sr García-Margallo said.
“This match is going to be played in March or April of next year, we’re not talking of a long-term calendar.”
“That is when the European Council has to establish the mandate and the framework for negotiation.”
“That is when Spain has to make clear that the negotiations between the EU and the United Kingdom can in no way include Gibraltar.”
Sr García-Margallo has insisted repeatedly that once the UK triggers Article 50, Gibraltar becomes a bilateral matter between the UK and Spain outside the scope of Brexit talks.
That position clashes with the British Government’s commitment to fully involve Gibraltar in the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
Sr García-Margallo has been unflinching in his view, but yesterday voiced a hint of doubt for the first time.
“If that battle is lost,” he told Espejo Público on Antena 3, “then the situation becomes infinitely more difficult.”
The lapse was momentary and the former minister immediately resumed his usual stance on the Rock and Brexit.
“Nothing would be more absurd than for Gibraltar to gain a special status inside the EU once the UK is outside,” he said.
“No one can even contemplate a third country having a colony inside the EU, no one can contemplate such a thing.”
And he added: “Do you think that if Spain had a colony in Brighton, the UK wouldn’t use this opportunity to put the matter on the table?”
Sr García-Margallo said he was confident Spain would block any attempt by Britain to include Gibraltar within the scope of the Brexit negotiation.
“In the last five years while I’ve been minister, we have vetoed [in the EU] everything that related to Gibraltar,” he said, citing the open skies package and the Ukraine-EU air transport deal as examples.
“I don’t see why this wouldn’t continue to be the case.”
He insisted that Spain had international law on its side.
“The United Nations has been saying forever that this is a colony, that the process of decolonisation must be the result of an agreement between the UK and Spain, and that this agreement must respect the principle of territorial integrity, that Spanish sovereignty must be restored,” he said.
“The moment will arrive and I am sure that my successor, like any Minister for Foreign Affairs in Spain, will maintain this position with absolute firmness.”
“I know him very well, I’ve spoken to him on this issue.”
Sr Dastis, Spain’s new Foreign Minister, has so far avoided any significant comment on Gibraltar and the issue was not raised during a meeting earlier this week with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Questioned by reporters, he said the UK was fully aware of Spain’s position and that there was no need to “focus exclusively” on the issue or “fret” about it.
That change in tone from his predecessor has not gone unnoticed in Spain. Yesterday, in reporting on the interview with Sr García-Margallo, Antena 3 said Sr Dastis “does not believe Gibraltar is a priority”.
Gibraltar has dismissed Sr García-Margallo’s proposal for co-sovereignty and the UK has repeatedly reaffirmed its double-lock commitment never to change or discuss sovereignty against the wishes of the Gibraltarians.