Spain’s sovereignty aspiration over Gibraltar “is not the issue” in Brexit discussions, the country’s Minister for Foreign Affairs has told the Financial Times.
Alfonso Dastis said Madrid instead wanted a deal that included managing Gibraltar’s airport “together”, as well as “more cooperation” on tobacco and taxation.
“Sovereignty is something we aspire to, that we are not renouncing, but in these negotiations it is not the issue,” Mr Dastis said.
Although the Spanish minister has signalled in the past that Spain would not make sovereignty a condition in Brexit talks, this is the clearest statement of that position to date.
Mr Dastis’ comment is in stark contrast to that of his hawkish predecessor, José Manuel García-Margallo, who put sovereignty at the centre of Spain’s position on Gibraltar within the context of Brexit.
In the interview, Mr Dastis repeated Spain’s traditional position on the isthmus, insisting that Spain “has a claim” on that area of land and thatMadrid wanted a deal with the UK that included “managing the airport together”.
But he offered no detail on what that might envisage or how it would differ from an earlier agreement, reached under the trilateral process, for joint use of the airport.
Yesterday the Gibraltar Government reacted to Mr Dastis’ comments to the FT and said joint use of the airport had already formed part of the Cordoba agreement reached under the trilateral process.
Under that 2006 agreement, the Government of Gibraltar was to grant a contractual concession to operate the terminal and provide passenger services on a commercial basis to a joint venture company owned by Gibraltar and Spanish business interests
“The joint management of the air terminal, on a purely commercial basis, between Gibraltar and Spanish business interests was provided for in the agreement signed at Cordoba in 2006 between the then Governments of Gibraltar, the United Kingdom and Spain,” No.6 Convent Place said in a statement.
“This did not happen because Spain has not yet given effect to this and other relevant parts of the agreement.”
The Gibraltar Government said yesterday that it continued to work closely with the UK to prepare for withdrawal from the EU, adding that it remained ready to engage with other parties including Spain as necessary.
“The longstanding position of Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar is that it remains ready to engage in technical discussions with all interested parties, including Spain, in this regard,” No.6 Convent Place said.
“The sovereignty of Gibraltar is not a matter for discussion.”
In its negotiating guidelines, the EU has sought to grant Spain a veto on the application to Gibraltar of any future agreement between the UK and the EU, including transitional arrangements.
Both Gibraltar and the UK refute that veto and insist Gibraltar is covered by the Brexit negotiations.
But in a bid to defuse any tensions before they arise and replace them instead with constructive dialogue, the UK and Spain last January discussed Gibraltar informally as part of London’s wider engagement with EU governments to address the practical aspects of Brexit.
Gibraltar – which is represented in the EU by the UK – was not present at that bilateral discussion, but was closely involved in preparing the UK position on issues relating to the Rock, and was fully briefed subsequently.
The interview with the FT provides further insight into Spain’s thinking and is in line with earlier comments in which Mr Dastis has sought to soften the tone adopted by his predecessor.
In a comment described by the FT as “a conciliatory remark”, Mr Dastis said he could accept the inclusion of Gibraltarians in the British delegation in any future talks.
He floated suggestions to “improve” the ease of travel across the border, echoing earlier statements to Agence France Presse that “nothing will change” with frontier fluidity after Brexit.
Mr Dastis also repeated Spain’s well-known, longstanding concerns on tobacco smuggling and taxation.
But even on these traditional Spanish bugbears there was a shift in tone.
The Spanish minister, described by the FT as “one of the more dovish members of the Spanish government on Gibraltar”, said he was “cautiously optimistic” that “irritants” could be addressed.
“We need some more cooperation with the Gibraltar or the UK tax authorities, but the situation has already improved,” he told the newspaper.
“The Gibraltarians seem willing to cooperate; we need to see that in practice.”
Gibraltar has long refuted Spain’s criticism on taxation, insisting it complies with all the relevant international agreement on tax information exchange, including EU directives.
The Gibraltar Government has also entered into dozens of bilateral tax information exchange agreements with countries around the world and has repeatedly offered Spain direct cooperation on matters related to taxation.
Likewise the Gibraltar Government has toughened laws to clamp down on tobacco smuggling.