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.
But while the Spanish minister’s comments on sovereignty will be welcomed, Madrid’s stance on the airport will not be acceptable to the Gibraltar or UK governments.
According to the FT, it could even derail a wider Brexit deal.
Mr Dastis repeated Spain’s traditional position on the isthmus, insisting that Spain “has a claim” on the area of land on which the airport is built.
He told the FT that Madrid wanted a deal with the UK that included “managing the airport together”, but offered no detail on what that might envisage, or how it would differ from an earlier agreement under the trilateral process for joint use of the airport.
The interview with the FT provides further insight into Spain’s thinking and is in line with earlier comments in which Mr Dastis sought to soften the tone adopted by his predecessor.
It comes at a crucial time in which the Brexit negotiations are moving on to the second phase and the detail of the UK’s future relationship with the bloc.
In its Brexit 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.
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 says it has toughened laws to clamp down on tobacco smuggling.