Brexit Secretary David Davis said yesterday he did not envisage a special arrangement for Gibraltar as part of the UK’s deal to leave the European Union, although he did not rule it out completely.
During a session of the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee, Mr Davis was asked by Scottish National Party MP Joanna Cherry whether Gibraltar and Northern Ireland could get their own Brexit deals tailor-made to their particular circumstances.
“I would be loath to go down that route,” Mr Davis replied.
“I think it is important for the people of Northern Ireland to feel themselves as part of the United Kingdom until they decide otherwise, and similarly for the people of Gibraltar.”
The British Government was “looking at all options” and was not ruling out separate deals at this stage, Mr Davis said.
But he told Ms Cherry: “I don’t see an option that meets what you describe.”
Mr Davis said the primary issue with Gibraltar— “not the only issue, but the primary issue” — was sovereignty and “the argument with Spain” over sovereignty.
On this, he added, the UK had a firm position.
“We have made it very plain that we will always respect the wishes of the people of Gibraltar,” he told the Committee.
“I used to be Gibraltar Minister; it is written into my blood.”
Mr Davis’ comments will once again focus attention on what Gibraltar hopes to achieve from the Brexit deal.
Chief Minister Fabian Picardo this week stopped short of calling for a separate arrangement for Gibraltar, but said Brexit would be “a multi-faceted deal” with “differentiated” outcomes for different sectors of industry and parts of the UK, including potentially for Gibraltar.
“What Mr Davis has said is consistent with what the Gibraltar Government is saying in consultation with the Department for Exiting the EU,” a spokesman for No 6 Convent Place said last night.
Mr Picardo also told the House of Lords EU Committee that access to the Single Market, together with a free flowing border, were Gibraltar’s two key goals as the UK prepared for Brexit negotiations.
“If we can achieve that then I think we will be able to ensure that Gibraltar is able to continue to thrive economically in the future,” Mr Picardo said on Tuesday.
He added that all that was needed to ensure a free flowing border was “good will and good faith” on both sides.
Yesterday Mr Davis said Britain was still keeping open the “strategic aim” of remaining within the Single Market after it leaves the bloc.
Asked if the British Government had decided whether to stay in the Single Market or not, Mr Davis said: “This is one of those things where we have to work out what’s compatible, and our view at the moment is to keep that general purpose option, that strategic aim, open, for the moment. Full stop. Just open. And not come to a conclusion until we have done more work.”
“This is one of those things where we have to see what develops on the Continent as well. One of the difficulties is that we are at the early stages of negotiation where the stance is a very firm one, shall we say. Very strong, and, so it’s really quite hard to read how it will develop beyond here.”
“But, broadly speaking, we are sticking to the over-arching aim – maximum possible access, services, goods, networks, and so on.”
The latest developments came in the week that the Lords’ EU Committee published a report on Brexit and UK/Irish relations in which it said the Brexit deal would require “a unique solution” reflecting the singular circumstances of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Yesterday Mr Davis told the Commons’ Exiting the EU Committee that the British Government was “determined” to keep an open border in Ireland, with no fences and no checkpoints, dismissing suggestions that this would create a route into the UK for people trying to evade post-Brexit immigration controls.
He said the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and the Dublin government shared this goal, making an agreement likely.
One possible model for the future border was the very lightly-controlled border between Norway – which is outside the EU and the European Customs Union but part of the Single Market – and EU member Sweden, he told the cross-party committee.
Mr Davis said the open border allowing easy passage of people and goods between the Republic and the North was “a very important part” of the peace agreement to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
He added: “We are determined to maintain that as an open border.”
“I am optimistic that the EU will be helpful to us on this. Michel Barnier is also very seized of this. When I saw him, we didn’t talk about the negotiation but he did raise out of nowhere his involvement in it and his commitment to it.”
“It gave me a degree of comfort that we should be able to do this in some way.”
He added: “When I went to Dublin, they were equally keen to maintain this. We may have discussions with them about their own incoming security, so we have got at least some watch-list there, but that’s for them to decide, not me.”
And while voters wanted Brexit delivered “properly and soon”, Mr Davis said he was ready to accept a transitional arrangement to implement the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU “if it’s necessary and only if it’s necessary”.
Mr Davis told MPs he believed that the UK’s Brexit deal should be “negotiable” within the 18-month timetable set out by Michel Barnier, the chief Brexit negotiator for the EU.
Article 50 sets out a two-year timetable to draw up an agreement on withdrawal, but Mr Barnier has said that part of that time will be taken up with securing approval for the deal from the European Parliament and national leaders sitting in the European Council.
Asked whether a “quickie divorce” lasting six months or less might be possible, Mr Davis said: “I take the view that the best outcome is a negotiated free access to markets outcome and with it a negotiated outcome on justice, home affairs and security. I don’t think that can be done in six months.”
He played down suggestions that the EU will take a punitive approach to negotiations.
“At the end of the day, it will be the collective interest of the EU and UK that will be the predominant driver of the negotiation,” he said. “This is not going to be a single-dimensional haggling match. It won’t be like that.”
“That’s why I have tried to characterise it in terms of mutual interest and mutual benefit to both.”