Tighter EU border controls to be introduced in March will require systematic document checks for everyone crossing a Schengen border, including the one between Gibraltar and Spain.
The amendment to the Schengen Border Code was first proposed in the wake of terrorist attacks in 2015 and finally approved by the European Parliament and the European Commission last December after months of discussion.
It requires travel documents to be checked against relevant databases for all people entering or exiting the Schengen area.
Currently only citizens from non-EU countries are subjected to such stringent checks but once the amendment is formally adopted by the European Council and implemented as from March, they will apply to everyone including EU citizens.
The UK and Gibraltar are not part of Schengen and officials here do not intend to apply any additional checks or controls, and have no obligation to do so.
Spain, however, is part of the Schengen area. That means Spanish authorities will be legally obliged to conduct checks on all persons walking or driving to and from Gibraltar.
Spain has invested in automated gates for pedestrians at the La Linea border which will enable it to comply swiftly with the requirements by scanning documents and automatically checking against the necessary databases.
But while the so-called Automated Border Control gates are able to read modern British passports, they cannot yet retrieve data from ID cards issued in Gibraltar.
Neither is it clear how the Spanish authorities intend to conduct the required checks on travellers driving across the border.
At present identity controls at the La Linea border rarely involve more than a cursory glance at travel documents, ensuring fluidity at peak times.
There is concern however that once the new requirements are introduced, the flow will be slower no matter how fast the automated system is.
“It is difficult to determine at this early stage the precise effect that the yet to be implemented amended Schengen Border Code will have at the external borders of Schengen with other EU countries, including the border between Gibraltar and Spain,” said Dr Joseph Garcia, the deputy Chief Minister with responsibility for EU affairs.
“Gibraltar is not the only party with an interest in continuing to monitor closely the potential impact of these proposed new arrangements.”
“There are other parts of the European Union with land borders with the Schengen area that find themselves in a similar position.”
The amended Schengen Border Code allows some leeway, however, in busy borders where checks would have a negative impact on flow. Likewise the code already allows for special fast-track measures to be applied to cross-border commuters.
Fluidity at the border between Gibraltar and Spain has vastly improved since the delays of 2013 and the subsequent intervention by the European Commission, which despatched inspectors to the frontier and made a series of recommendations.
But the fear here is that the amendment will in effect provide legal cover should Madrid in future decide to apply political pressure using the crossing.
Spanish officials insist privately that there is no intention to create difficulties at the border, particularly given the serious challenges ahead arising from Brexit.
“The amended Schengen Border Code gives us a lot of flexibility and what we want to do is help Gibraltar, not create problems,” said one Spanish source familiar with the changes.
“It’s a Schengen border, but it has an EU member on the other side and even after Brexit, Gibraltar will still be Europe.”
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