The UK and Gibraltar stand ready to find “deeper forms” of cross-border cooperation with Spain, Britain told the United Nations yesterday, amid separate warnings from Madrid that failure to reach agreement on the Rock’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union could spell “economic disaster” for communities on either side of the border.
The exchanges between UK and Spanish diplomats took place at the meeting of the UN’s Fourth Committee on decolonisation, which earlier this week heard from Gibraltarian representatives including Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia.
The UN meeting came against the backdrop of intense negotiations between the UK and the EU on withdrawal and transitional arrangements, and between Gibraltar, the UK, Spain and the EU as to the Rock will plug into any wider Brexit deal.
Few details have emerged of the detailed content of those discussions or what shape any agreement on Gibraltar might take.
But concerns about the impact of Brexit on the Rock and the neighbouring Campo were plainly evident throughout this year’s discussions at the UN meeting.
Yesterday, in exercising a right of reply to earlier contributions from Agustín Santos, Spain’s permanent representative to the UN, a UK representative refrained from talking explicitly about Brexit, but sent a clear signal nonetheless.
“Her Majesty’s Governments of the United Kingdom and Gibraltar stand ready to engage with Spain to establish new and deeper forms of cooperation to address issues of mutual importance in the wider region, through dialogue that fully reflects the wishes, interests, rights and responsibilities of the people and Government of Gibraltar,” the UK delegate said.
Responding to that statement, Spain’s Mr Santos was far more direct, stressing the “very urgent” need for an agreement on Gibraltar’s post-Brexit arrangements.
“It is evident that after so many years talking about sovereignty, we could find ourselves with a much more urgent problem,” Mr Santos said.
“If we don’t reach an agreement, the ones who will be directly affected will be the communities on either side of the fence.”
Mr Santos warned that without an agreement, the economies of Gibraltar and the Campo could “collapse at this decisive moment”.
If that happened, he added, the only thing left to talk about would be “the economic disaster produced by the lack of an agreement”.
He told the UN that the situation arose because of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, underscoring Spain’s commitment to negotiate and reach agreements “in the medium and long term”.
Earlier this week Mr Santos had set out Spain’s traditional position on sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also desire for dialogue and cooperation on practical matters in the face of Brexit.
In its statement to the UN, the UK Government countered the core arguments set out by Spain.
The UK Government underscored, for example, its well-known stance on the Rock’s British sovereignty and the rights of Gibraltarians to self determination.
It highlighted “modern and mature” constitutional relationship between Gibraltar and the UK, reiterating the UK Government’s double-lock commitment never to change or even discuss sovereignty against the freely and democratically expressed wishes of the Gibraltarians.
“The United Kingdom reaffirms its commitment to safeguard Gibraltar, its people and its economy,” the UK delegate told the UN committee.
The UN was reminded too of the UK and Gibraltar’s commitment to the trilateral forum for dialogue, and their regret at Spain’s decision to step back from the framework under the Partido Popular in 2011.
Ironically perhaps, Mr Santos, the Spanish ambassador, is no stranger to that forum, having served as chief of staff for former Socialist Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who signed the Cordoba agreement reached through that process of dialogue.
But Brexit and hopes for better cooperation aside, there remained clear and longstanding areas of disagreement.
Responding to the Spanish statement earlier this week, the UK refuted Madrid’s position that the isthmus had been “illegally occupied” and that the Rock enjoyed no territorial waters.
Instead, the UK said it would continue to uphold British sovereignty through proportionate naval and diplomatic responses to illegal Spanish incursions into British waters.
The UK also highlighted Gibraltar’s cooperation with the European Commission and its ongoing investigation into the Rock’s tax regime.
“We are confident that Gibraltar’s tax regime will be found to comply with all applicable EU and international standards,” the UK representative said.
It highlighted too the European Commission’s recognition of the “significant steps” taken by Gibraltar to tackle cigarette smuggling, adding: “Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar has repeatedly made clear its desire to work more closely and directly with its Spanish counterparts to tackle this issue.”
Those last two statements are significant because Spain has raised these as areas of concern within the context of the ongoing Brexit discussions.