Gibraltar and Andalusia vowed yesterday to “turn the challenge of Brexit into an opportunity”, kicking off a process of bilateral contact following “a long, friendly and intense” meeting between Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and Susana Díaz, the President of the Junta de Andalucia.
Both sides stressed the discussion had been “positive and constructive”, adding that an important line of communication had been opened at a time when the Brexit process is moving into the second phase of the withdrawal negotiations.
And while the Junta de Andalucia said it stood behind the Spanish Government on anything that touched on Gibraltar’s sovereignty, it insisted it wanted “the softest possible Brexit” to minimize the impact on the region.
The landmark meeting is the first time a Gibraltar Chief Minister has been received by a Junta President in the historic Palacio de San Telmo, the seat of the Andalusian executive in Seville.
It had been requested by the Chief Minister after the Junta set out its concerns about the impact of Brexit in a report to the European Union’s Committee of the Regions. The Junta had first cleared the encounter with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Madrid.
Yesterday, Mr Picardo and Ms Díaz forged a relationship based on mutual interests, insisting their respective administrations would work jointly within their competences to protect the interests of residents of Gibraltar and the Campo de Gibraltar, as well as an estimated 13,000 cross-frontier workers, of whom 8,177 are Spanish.
Mr Picardo, flanked by Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia and Attorney General Michael Llamas, met with Ms Diaz and Vice-President Manuel Jimenez Barrios and discussed Brexit for an hour behind closed doors, before briefing a score of journalists who had gathered there for the event.
During the discussion and in subsequent briefings, the Junta underlined the Campo’s economic links to Gibraltar, highlighting that one in four jobs in the area was directly linked to the Rock.
Mr Picardo said Gibraltar and the Junta were “looking at a very fluid process of engagement now”, centred in large part on frontier fluidity and the protection of the rights of cross-border workers.
“This has been the kick off,” Mr Picardo said.
“This is not the match. This is the beginning of the match, which is a friendly one.”
Mr Picardo said the interests of residents of Gibraltar, the Campo and thwe wider region of Andalusia would also figure prominently in the discussions.
“It is primarily for workers, but it is also citizens,” Mr Picardo said.
Mr Picardo called Ms Díaz “very frank” in the way she had set out her ideas, adding she has a “clear understanding” of the issues.
“She has made the region an important part of her political agenda,” he said.
“The demonstration today of the time that she has given to the Government of Gibraltar is a demonstration of her commitment to the Campo de Gibraltar, whixh is her obligation to look out for.”
Mr Picardo emphasised that the meeting was “hugely positive and bodes very well for the future”, adding the outcome of the relationship will bring mutual benefits for communities on both sides of the border.
“Like all relationships, we have to nurture it and have to work to ensure it produces something positive for both sides,” Mr Picardo said.
“But I think this has been a very positive start to a relationship to deliver mutual benefits for Gibraltar and Andalusia.”
That sentiment was echoed by Mr Jímenez, who spoke to journalists and set out the Junta’s position after the meeting with Mr Picardo and his team.
The discussion, he said, had been “long, friendly and intense”, adding that the Junta and Gibraltar “have opened an important line of communication.”
“We have to turn concern about Brexit into an opportunity,” Mr Jimenez told reporters.
“We want the softest Brexit possible, with the least possibly impact on the Andalusian economy.”
Mr Jimenez said the Junta was ready to use its resources and work jointly with Gibraltar in areas such as health, tourism, commerce and the environment, where the regional government has competencies.
But he stressed several times that the Junta had liaised with the central Spanish government prior to the meeting – Madrid had cleared the discussion – and would do so immediately afterwards, adding that the regional administration had “maximum loyalty” to the central government’s position on Gibraltar.
“I’ve said time and time again that any issue to do with sovereignty is the responsibility of the Spanish Government,” he said.
“The government of the Junta de Andalucia stands behind the Spanish Government in defence of those interests.”
“But that does not mean that the Junta is not going to put on the table whatever it can in the areas where it has competency.”
He insisted that the challenge posed by Brexit had to be faced in spirit of “dialogue and trust” that had been evident during yesterday’s meeting in Seville.
“The main objective is to mitigate the negative effects of Brexit,” he said, adding that “normality” must be maintained at the border.
Both sides have agreed to work together in order to assess any potential economic impacts caused by Brexit, and hope it is an opportunity to generate opportunities, despite not being a decision chosen by the Gibraltarian people.
For now, the discussions will continue at official level, with the possibility of working groups being set up in the future to tackle specific areas of interest once these are properly defined.