The UK and Spain have exchanged “positive messages” on Gibraltar since Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez took office, but it is still too soon to detect any change in Madrid’s approach to the Rock’s post-Brexit future, the House of Lords was told yesterday.
Addressing the Lords EU select committee, Robin Walker, Under Secretary of State at the Department for Exiting the EU, said Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had spoken to his Spanish counterpart, Josep Borrell, at the weekend.
“I think positive messages have been exchanged in both directions,” he said.
“But this is very, very early days.”
Mr Walker said the UK Government was still awaiting the appointment of officials within the Spanish government who would likely have an important input into ongoing discussions about Gibraltar’s future relationship with Spain and the EU.
He said there had been no formal meetings with Spain since the change of government in Madrid, but added that discussions with officials from the previous administration – sometimes involving Gibraltar officials too – had been “useful”.
Taking questions from peers on the committee, Mr Walker repeated the UK’s position that Gibraltar was covered by the EU withdrawal agreement and implementation period.
“It’s important to reflect that the text of the withdrawal agreement, including on the implementation period, is currently drafted in a way that means it does cover Gibraltar and we’re very clear that that is our position,” he said, adding: “That it is covered in the withdrawal agreement and the implementation period, and that it should also be covered in the future relationship.”
Mr Walker acknowledged however that Spain has “a different view” on this issue, “particularly with regards to the future relationship”.
He said the UK was engaging with all EU member states on practical issues relating to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and that conversations with Spain included some practical issues relating to Gibraltar.
He did not expand on the nature of those practical issues, but made clear they did not involve sovereignty.
“Of course what we will not do and we will never do is to have a conversation about sovereignty over the heads of the people of Gibraltar and without their support,” he said.
“We are absolutely committed to keeping Gibraltar engaged and involved through this process.”
“A number of meetings have taken place which have included representatives from Gibraltar and that is useful.”
“But I should stress that these are to deal with practical issues rather than…theoretical or sovereignty-related ones.”
He added: “The indications that we’re getting…is that there is a constructive approach being taken to this whole area.”
Mr Walker declined to be drawn on the detail of discussions that had taken place “at official level”.
But he highlighted the need to ensure border fluidity after Brexit.
“It’s important that we make sure that we are able to deliver on that,” he said.
“It’s very clear that Gibraltar’s economy makes a significant contribution to its immediate neighbourhood and to that of Andalucia and indeed beyond.”
“Making sure that we can achieve arrangements here that work for both parties is going to be absolutely crucial.”
“But we haven’t yet had any formal meetings with the new government,” he added.
“I think it’s really too early to say in terms of the detail of any shift there.”
Mr Walker was asked by Lord Boswell, the chairman of the committee who recently visited Gibraltar on a fact-finding mission, whether he thought a return to the Cordoba agreement was a viable option.
“With regards to the exact position of the new [Spanish] administration, I think we need to wait until that administration has been fully formed and when we’ve had those discussions with them,” he said.
“But the UK’s longstanding positions on a whole range of issues, including the Cordoba agreement, are clear.”
“We believe that was a good agreement and we do want to ensure that as we continue to discuss with Gibraltar our preparations for EU exit, we look into all the opportunities for the shared economy in Gibraltar and Andalucia to prosper.”
Mr Walker welcomed that Spain’s previous government had made clear it would not use the Brexit negotiations to pursue its sovereignty objective.
“We welcome that, because we are very clear we’re not going to be negotiating about sovereignty,” he said.
“But where there are issues relating to shared safety concerns, relating to shared potential economic benefit, we think it’s worth having a discussion about these.”
Mr Walker was also asked about ongoing discussions with the Gibraltar Government to ensure continued access to the UK market for Gibraltar-based services companies after 2020, particularly in the financial sector.
He said work was well under way to ensure “…regulatory alignment between Gibraltar and the UK that allows us to maintain those strong financial links that already exist between us.”
“Gibraltar has taken a number of important steps on transparency which actually we can reassure all our EU counterparts of,” he told the Lords committee.
“It’s important that we acknowledge the work that they’ve done on that front.”