News that negotiations on Gibraltar’s post-Brexit relationship with Spain had become strained will have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with our affairs. Finding agreement with the Partido Popular on enhanced use of Gibraltar’s airport was never going to be easy.
On the face of it, there are two irreconcilable positions.
On one side is Spain’s position that Gibraltar’s airport is on an isthmus not ceded under the Treaty of Utrecht. Viewed from Madrid, any deal acknowledging British jurisdiction over that patch of land – whether explicitly or indirectly – will not sit well.
On the other side is Gibraltar’s and the UK’s unshakeable position that the Rock, isthmus included, is British, that sovereignty is not on the table, and that anything touching those particular red lines will not prosper. No Spanish policemen in Gibraltar’s air terminal, in other words.
The curious thing about all this is that the solution to this impasse already exists, as we are often reminded. It was agreed in Cordoba in 2006 by the governments of Gibraltar, the UK and Spain under the trilateral forum for dialogue.
The text was a delicately-balanced deal that unlocked the enhanced use of the airport while respecting everyone’s red lines on sovereignty.
It envisaged plans for a separate access from Spain into the terminal, addressing Madrid’s EU obligation to conduct controls under Schengen rules. Spain also agreed a formula of words with the UK and Gibraltar clearing the way for the Rock’s airport to be included in EU aviation legislation.
It was a deal that had as many detractors as it had supporters on both sides of the frontier fence, always a sign of a good agreement. The GSLP/Liberals and the Partido Popular, both in opposition when the Cordoba accord was signed, were opposed to much of its content at the time.
The Cordoba clause made clear that Gibraltar’s inclusion in EU aviation measures was “…without prejudice to the respective legal positions with regard to the dispute over sovereignty and jurisdiction over the territory in which the airport is situated.”
In other words, the clause protected each side’s core position on the thorny issue of sovereignty.
It did so because the UK, Spain and Gibraltar all recognised that the enhanced use of Gibraltar’s airport was beneficial for the social and economic development of the Rock and the Campo de Gibraltar. The hope was to use the airport to create jobs and wealth.
Does that sound familiar? It should. It is exactly the same motivation driving the discussions today.
It all went swimmingly for a while after the Cordoba agreement was signed.
A trawl through the EU’s official gazette shows that the Cordoba language was used in several EU aviation packages in the years after the agreement was signed. They included, for example, aviation agreements between the EU and Morocco, the US, Canada, Georgia and Jordan. There were also regulations on aviation security, air services and the investigation and prevention of accidents, among others.
So what happened, one might reasonably ask? The answer is to be found in Madrid.
When Mariano Rajoy swept into government in 2011, the PP – which had always opposed the PSOE strategy on Gibraltar – said it considered the trilateral forum done and dusted. In doing so, it also reneged on the commitments made by the PSOE administration in respect of aviation. The Spanish access to Gibraltar’s terminal was never built. Likewise, new EU legislative packages on aviation hit a brick wall.
In the years after the PP reached government in 2011, relations with Gibraltar became extremely tense, fuelled in large part by the rancid rhetoric of the then Minister for Foreign Affairs in Madrid, Jose Manuel García-Margallo, whose obsession with Gibraltar undid years of progress and goodwill achieved by the trilateral forum.
Several major pieces of EU aviation stalled completely, with the European Commission estimating in 2016 that the deadlock was costing Europe as much as 400 million euros annually in lost business opportunities.
And yet, despite the PP’s intransigence, at least two aviation agreements that included Gibraltar were implemented with Rajoy in office and García-Margallo still in the Palacio de Santa Cruz. There was the 2012 Air Services Agreement with Moldova, for example. Or the Euro-Mediterranean Aviation Agreement with Israel, which came into force in 2013. Both of those used the Cordoba clause. There may be others.
It is not clear why the PP accepted the use of the Cordoba language in those two packages. Perhaps it was simply a case of delayed response, who knows?
But the fact that the Cordoba formula was acceptable not just to the previous PSOE administration but also, for a time at least, to the PP itself should provide encouragement to those in Madrid who want to build bridges with Gibraltar in the face of the Brexit challenge.
There are clearly two schools of thought within the PP when it comes to Gibraltar.
One is rooted in past prejudices and nationalist claims. The other, while not renouncing the aspiration to recover sovereignty over the Rock, adopts a more pragmatic approach in line with the seismic shifts caused by Brexit to the European political and social landscape.
The tone for the pragmatists is being set by García-Margallo’s successor at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Alfonso Dastis, a mild-mannered career diplomat who has maintained Spain’s core sovereignty position – no Spanish government minister could do otherwise – while publicly, repeatedly, expressing a desire for constructive dialogue.
Unlike his predecessor, who saw in Brexit the best opportunity in three centuries for Spain to pursue its sovereignty goal, Dastis has made clear that pushing the sovereignty agenda is not part of his strategy in the context of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. His focus is on people.
The pragmatists in the PP ranks should take heart that they are doing the right thing for the citizens of the Campo de Gibraltar, where there is consensus across the political spectrum and wider society that good cross-border relations with Gibraltar could generate economic wealth for the region as a whole.
They should ignore the siren calls of PP hawks whose vision is rooted in the past and, instead of making demands that will never prosper, should look to Cordoba as a foundation on which to build for the future.
The issue is important because without agreement, Gibraltar could be left out of any transitional arrangements to soften the blow of Brexit. But that scenario would deliver a worse blow to the Campo.
If everyone’s red lines are instead respected, then there is room for manoeuvre in between.
Main photo of Gibraltar airport by David Parody.