Spain’s demand for a say in Gibraltar’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union was “legitimate”, Brussels’s chief negotiator Brexit negotiator told the Spanish Parliament yesterday.
Speaking during a visit to Madrid, Michel Barnier also suggested that Gibraltar was not a prominent issue in the wider Brexit discussions between the UK and the EU.
“Gibraltar will leave the Union at the same time as the United Kingdom and, as such, it is not a point that figures in the negotiations, at least from my point of view,” Mr Barnier said.
“What the Spanish government has asked for, and the other 26 countries have understood as a legitimate petition, is that a condition be imposed on the United Kingdom before any agreement in the transition period is also applied to Gibraltar.”
“And that condition is that there should be a bilateral discussion between the Spanish government and the United Kingdom government.”
Mr Barnier made the comments while addressing the European Affairs Commission of the Spanish Parliament.
He heard directly from Spanish MPs of their concerns about the potential impact of Brexit on the Campo de Gibraltar and their uncertainty about Gibraltar’s position within the Brexit talks.
During his time in Madrid yesterday, Mr Barnier met Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis and had lunch with Vice President Soraya de Santamaría.
Mr Barnier told MPs the Spanish government was “very worried” about the impact of Brexit on cross-border workers, adding that Madrid was very “clear and precise” that their rights must be protected.
Gibraltar was just one small element of Mr Barnier’s comment to MPs during the parliamentary session, which focused mainly on wider Brexit issues.
In comments that were swiftly picked up by British media, he said any post-Brexit free trade agreement with the EU could be vetoed if the UK insists on the freedom to diverge from European standards and regulations.
Michel Barnier said that any deal which failed to preserve a level regulatory playing field would face “difficulties” in securing the ratification of national and regional parliaments in the remaining 27 member states – including his homeland of France.
Up to 38 national and regional legislatures in the EU will hold a veto on any trade deal, and any one of them has the power to block it. An earlier agreement with Canada almost collapsed in 2016 over a threatened veto from the Walloon parliament in Belgium.
Mr Barnier said that successful ratification could hinge on Britain’s willingness to maintain convergence with the rest of the EU on issues such as food standards, environmental protections, consumer rights and financial regulation.
The freedom to diverge from EU rules is viewed as a holy grail by supporters of a “hard Brexit”, who regard it as essential for the UK to strike new trade deals with the US and other economic powers around the world.
US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recently suggested that a trans-Atlantic agreement on trade could depend on the UK being ready to ditch EU rules such as the ban on imports of American chlorine-washed chicken.
“The question is whether the British, as they leave the EU, will also leave its regulatory model in order to draw closer to the Americans or others,” Mr Barnier told the Spanish parliament’s Joint Commission on the EU.
“It’s an important question because it will determine the model for co-operation we adopt and the rules we will need to avoid regulatory competition or dumping.”
“If we don’t find a solution to this question, I can imagine that in many countries – starting with my own – there will be difficulties in securing ratification of a trade deal with the English.”
“If we want to succeed – and I hope to succeed – we need to find a way to guarantee what is called in English a ‘level playing field’.”
There was “no reason” why the EU would weaken its own social model to accommodate a UK desire to converge, he said.
Mr Barnier told Spanish MPs he believed it was possible for an EU/UK trade deal to be concluded within the expected two-year transition period after the date of Brexit in March 2019.
But he warned that the risk of a disorderly exit would remain until the withdrawal deal under Article 50 of the EU treaties is finalised and endorsed by the European Council, European Parliament and Westminster. National and regional parliaments do not hold a veto on the withdrawal agreement.
Asked what model London was seeking for the post-Brexit relationship, he replied: “I can’t tell you. I’m waiting for British proposals, but I have heard the red lines they have laid down.”