Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and the new leader of the Partido Popular, Pablo Casado, clashed over Gibraltar yesterday during a parliamentary debate on Brexit.
Addressing the Congress in Madrid, Mr Sánchez insisted his government was putting the interests of people at the centre of its Brexit strategy, drawing flak from Mr Casado whose party has returned to a hardline stance on Gibraltar.
Mr Sánchez described Brexit as a “tragedy” and urged regional and municipal administrations as well as businesses in Spain to prepare for a hard Brexit, even while speaking with optimism about negotiations in respect of future relations with Gibraltar.
He also urged parties campaigning for Catalonia’s independence to “learn from the mistakes of Brexit” and find ways of bridging differences with the central government in Madrid.
“Whether or not there is agreement [on Brexit], nothing will be the same again and we have to be ready for that,” he said.
But he and Mr Casado traded feisty exchanges on Gibraltar and Catalonia that put the spotlight on the PP’s drift to the right under its new leader.
Despite being just 37 years old, Mr Casado has adopted the ideology of older figures in the party and, on Gibraltar in particular, is following the path set by the PP’s controversial former Foreign Minister Jose Manuel García-Margallo.
Mr Casado said Gibraltar was “a red line” for the PP, describing Brexit as “a historic opportunity” to pursue Spain’s sovereignty aspirations.
He insisted Spain should push for the joint sovereignty proposal tabled under Mr García-Margallo at the UN in 2016 – and which Gibraltar rejected robustly and unequivocally.
Mr Sánchez hit back and reminded Mr Casado that the PSOE’s strategy on Brexit and Gibraltar had, in fact, been set by the PP under its former Foreign Minister, Alfonso Dastis.
Mr Dastis replaced Mr García-Margallo when the latter was dropped by former PP Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
A career diplomat, he adopted a much more nuanced approach on Gibraltar, leaving sovereignty out of the Brexit negotiations and engaging in dialogue with both the UK and Gibraltar.
While not renouncing Spain’s core position on sovereignty, Mr Dastis – conscious of Gibraltar’s immoveable position on remaining British and the UK’s double-lock commitment to the Gibraltarians – made clear Spain would not risk derailing the wider withdrawal negotiations by following Mr García-Margallo’s lead.
“Don’t look to Mr Margallo,” the Spanish Prime Minister told Mr Casado yesterday, accusing him of pushing the PP toward the ideology of the far right party Vox on this and other issues.
“Look at Mr Dastis and talk to him. Believe what I am telling you. Talk to Mr Dastis and Mr Rajoy.”
“You’ll see that the Spanish Government’s position is the same one that the previous administration took toward Gibraltar.”
Reflecting on the negotiations, Mr Sánchez again differentiated between the protocol that will ensure Gibraltar’s inclusion within any UK/EU withdrawal agreement and transitional arrangements, and the memorandums on practical day-to-day cross-border issues.
He said the memorandums were close to being finalised but that even if there was no consensus on these if and when the wider withdrawal agreement was closed, it would not matter because the protocol would be in place.
“I think that’s important because Brexit cannot stall because of this,” he said.
“But logically, Brexit cannot go ahead without taking into account the Gibraltar aspect, as we have been doing from the outset.”
Mr Casado was also lambasted by Aitor Esteban, the leader of the Basque Nationalist Party.
Mr Esteban welcomed news of progress toward an agreement on the Gibraltar protocol but said he would like to see greater detail on its contents, alongside movement on the issues that remained to be agreed in respect of the memorandums.
“Because Spain needs Gibraltar and Gibraltar also needs Spain to cooperate,” he said.
“But the only thing that Mr Casado’s proposed solutions would achieve is even greater downfall and poverty in the Campo de Gibraltar.”