Spain might accept “some sort of future relationship” between Gibraltar and the European Union after Brexit, Spain’s new Foreign Minister said yesterday, even as he insisted Madrid’s underlying position “remains the same”.
In his first detailed public comments on Spain’s foreign policy aims, Alfonso Dastis Quecedo offered a marked change of tone on Gibraltar from that of his predecessor in the post, José Manuel García-Margallo.
Sr Dastis set out Madrid’s traditional position on Gibraltar, arguing that the Rock was a colony that undermined Spain’s territorial integrity and must be decolonised through bilateral talks in line with UN resolutions.
He said Brexit had “changed the circumstances” and would impact on Gibraltar’s relationship with the EU, adding that Sr García-Margallo had made “a generous offer of co-sovereignty”.
But whereas Sr García-Margallo had insisted that Gibraltar had only two options after Brexit – British outside the EU, or joint sovereignty inside the EU – Sr Dastis, a career diplomat, left much open to interpretation in his words yesterday.
Reflecting on the forthcoming Brexit talks, he said Spain would “not undermine the unity of EU member states” by insisting on bilateral agreements “for the benefit of this or that interest”.
“It’s true that we say – and I think it’s logical that we do this – that we have a particular situation in respect of Gibraltar,” he said.
“But when we joined the European Union, as well as the accession agreement, there was a bilateral agreement between the United Kingdom and Spain to address the issue of Gibraltar.”
“Well, there will have to be one when it comes to Brexit if Gibraltar wants to have some sort of future relationship, whatever it may be, with the European Union.”
Sr Dastis, who said the Brexit negotiations must be conducted by the European Commission, said Spain had made clear “in the pertinent places” that anything in a Brexit deal that “could affect Gibraltar in its relationship with the European Union” must be the subject of an agreement between the UK and Spain.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs was addressing the Foreign Affairs Commission in the Spanish Congress, his first parliamentary appearance since his appointment early in November.
During his comments on Gibraltar – which took up just a small part of a three-hour session – he acknowledged a motion approved by the Foreign Affairs Commission two days before he was named as minister, and which sought cross-party consensus on the issue of Gibraltar.
This is important because although Spanish political groups are agreed on the core issue of sovereignty, they have differing views on how the Spanish Government should approach relations with the Rock.
The PSOE puts emphasis on dialogue and cooperation, while other opposition parties such as Podemos and regional parties in the Basque Country and Catalonia even offer support for the right of Gibraltarians to self-determination.
“We have taken note of the motion which calls on the government to achieve consensus in its policy on Gibraltar against the context of Brexit,” Sr Dastis said.
“We understand, perfectly, that we must have the agreement of all political forces in order to regain the sovereignty of Gibraltar, because this is a paradigmatic case of state policy.”
“Our efforts must also have as a focus the interests of Spanish workers in Gibraltar and the socio-economic development of the Campo de Gibraltar.”
The differences between the various political parties were evident during the debate yesterday, as was the common ground they also share.
José Ignacio Sánchez Amor, speaking for the Socialists in the Spanish parliament, said the PSOE was in agreement on the core position on sovereignty.
But he nonetheless welcomed the fact that Sr Dastis had been measured in his first comments on Gibraltar, in marked contrast to Sr García-Margallo who spent much of his time talking about Gibraltar and Catalonia, “especially in summer”.
“There are people on both sides of that fence and taking that into account…is a good way to focus this, instead of with summer fever,” he said.
Aitor Esteban Bravo, the spokesman for the Basque Group in parliament, urged the Spanish Government to take into account the people of Gibraltar in its policies.
“Whatever happens with Gibraltar, it’s no good without the backing of the people,” Sr Esteban said.
“It’s not about territory, it’s about people, and you’ll have to include them, it’s no good leaving them out and dealing only with the United Kingdom.”
“Any solution has to be on those lines.”
He also reflected on the role played by Gibraltar in the economy of the Campo de Gibraltar, adding: “I would urge cooperation because Gibraltar can be an economic driver for the area if it is well managed, instead of seeking conflict.”
Interestingly, there was no mention of Gibraltar during the interventions of MPs from Ciudadadanos, the mixed group in Parliament and Podemos, perhaps suggesting the importance they assign to this issue.
There was a mention, however, by the Partido Popular MP José Ramón García Hernández, who took issue wth Sr Aitor’s comments in respect of the Gibraltarians having a view.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” he said.
“The population of a colony comes from the colonising country, and is not a state.”
During a wide-ranging session, Sr Dastis set out the key policy goals he had set for his ministry.
He Spanish foreign policy was focused on three main geographical axes, Europe, Latin America and the Mediterranean, although Madrid wanted to increase its presence and role in Africa and Asia.
Sr Dastis said Spain wants to play a leading role as the EU redefines itself against the context of Brexit, and in developing trans-Atlantic relations as Donald Trump takes his seat in the Whitehouse.
He said Spain would have a prominent role too in promoting global security and in the global response to migration, terrorism and conflict, as well as the defence of human rights.
Citizens in Spain and beyond, he added, must be at the heart of Spain’s foreign policy.
Describing Brexit as “a blow to the process of integration”, he said Spain remained firmly committed to European ideals and was well-placed to help the EU through the challenges ahead.
And he said Spain must be at the heart of this debate, both within the group of countries that want greater European integration and within the European institutions.
“To sum up, we want more and better Europe,” he said.