Spain will not use the Brexit negotiations to pursue its sovereignty aspirations, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said yesterday during a press conference in which he also appeared to signal his government’s readiness to engage in dialogue with Gibraltar.
Asked about sovereignty and Brexit discussions relating to the Rock, Mr Rajoy spoke of future conversations “with” Gibraltar, rather than ‘about’ Gibraltar, although he did not elaborate.
If such engagement materialised it would be a significant development given the Partido Popular’s past reticence for direct contact with Gibraltar.
Mr Rajoy was speaking to Spanish reporters after EU leaders cleared a deal on Britain’s 21-month transition to Brexit and approved guidelines designed to deliver a “balanced, ambitious and wide-ranging” free trade agreement with the UK.
As expected, the guidelines also included a reference to Gibraltar in apparent deference to Spain, which has been offered a veto by the EU on the Rock’s future relationship with the bloc.
While the guidelines include Gibraltar within the territorial scope of the withdrawal agreement and transition arrangements, they also add an asterisked footnote referencing Spain’s veto.
In a declaration yesterday welcoming the guidelines, the European Council underlined Spain’s position “notably as regards Gibraltar” and insisted that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.
While the UK insists that Gibraltar must be part of the withdrawal and transition arrangements, the EU says they can only be applied to the Rock with Spain’s prior consent as agreed with the UK.
Yesterday Mr Rajoy said his government had already embarked on “bilateral conversations” with the UK on this issue and that these were “progressing satisfactorily”.
The UK Government – Gibraltar is part of the EU with the UK as member state – regards those conversations as part of its wider bilateral engagement with other EU countries.
The discussions with Madrid touch on many issues of importance to the UK and Spain, not just Gibraltar. Additionally, the UK Government has stressed that whenever the conversations touch on Gibraltar, the Gibraltar Government has been closely involved in preparing the UK position.
Yesterday, Mr Rajoy appeared to suggest that Spain would be willing to go further and discuss Gibraltar-related matters directly with Gibraltarian officials as part of that process.
“The conversations with Gibraltar will not deal with the issue of sovereignty because one thing is Brexit and another is that we maintain our position, as could not be otherwise and as everyone understands,” he said, when asked if Spain had now left the issue of sovereignty “totally to one side”.
“Right now we are talking about Brexit and the issue of sovereignty is not being addressed here.”
“What we are going to talk about here above all is people, citizens, and specifically the workers of the Campo de Gibraltar.”
“We don’t want Brexit to make their circumstances worse.”
Mr Rajoy also offered insight into the issues that Spain wants to address in its conversations on Gibraltar as part of the Brexit process, echoing earlier statements by Alfonso Dastis, the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Mr Dastis had previously signalled Spain’s desire to discuss the airport, tobacco smuggling, taxation issues and the environment.
Yesterday Mr Rajoy added: “We are going to try do away with situations such as illicit trafficking, we want to improve transparency and the exchange of tax information, the future use of the airport, there are issues to do with fishing and the environment.”
“In other words, there are very important issues that affect citizens, and then there is the other matter which has another approach and different channels.”
Mr Rajoy added that Spain hoped to reach an agreement “in the coming months”.
Last night, the Gibraltar Government said it had noted the statements made by Mr Rajoy and his confirmation that Spain was not pursuing its sovereignty aspirations in the context of Brexit.
“The United Kingdom has already confirmed it has held individual meetings with all 27 member states in the process of its leaving the European Union,” No.6 Convent Place said in a statement.
“Gibraltar issues have been raised in a number of those meetings with a number of the 27 remaining member states and the EU institutions.”
“The Government of Gibraltar is fully involved in the process of multilateral negotiations being led by the Prime Minister for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.”
“There is no separate bilateral process of talks between the UK and Spain underway.”
“All of these discussions with different Member States are sensitive [and] we will not be providing a running commentary on any aspect of them.”
The UK Government also noted Mr Rajoy’s comments and repeated earlier statements on the discusssions it is having bilaterally with EU member states as part of the withdrawal process.
“The UK has a wide-range of discussions with Member States about its departure from the EU,” a spokesman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said.
“As part of this, there are exchanges with Spanish officials on the practical implications of the UK’s EU exit, including where relevant to Gibraltar. “
“Gibraltar is also relevant in similar discussions with other Member States and with the EU institutions.”
The spokesman added: “Of course the UK does not agree with the EU guidelines on Gibraltar.”
Yesterday, the UK’s ambassador to Spain, Simon Manley, also reinforced the common goal of seeking pragmatic solutions to the challenges raised by Brexit.
Speaking to the Chronicle in Los Barrios yesterday, where he was supporting the family of missing Briton Lisa Brown, Mr Manley said there was a “a genuine desire” on the part of the UK, Gibraltar and Spain, “to work together to try and overcome the challenges that there are clearly in the Brexit process”.
“Our priority must be ordinary people, Gibraltarians, Spaniards, other Europeans who work in Gibraltar, to ensure that they can continue to work as they have been doing hitherto, that they don’t face problems at the border and to try and see if we can extract positives from this process, to try and reinforce the prosperity and security of the whole area,” he said.
“I continue to be convinced that there’s a real potential there to do even more together.”