Gibraltar, the UK and the EU are “moments away” from agreeing the terms of a protocol to include Gibraltar in any Withdrawal Agreement and transitional arrangements reached between the UK and the EU, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said yesterday.
The UK, Gibraltar and the EU have spent months negotiating a specific protocol for Gibraltar in the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement. There will be similar protocols on Northern Ireland and on the UK Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus.
Although a final agreement has yet to be sealed, all the indications are that consensus on the terms of the protocol could be reached “within hours or days”.
The protocol on Gibraltar will ensure transitional arrangements to soften departure will apply to the Rock after March 29, 2019, the date the UK and Gibraltar will leave the EU.
It will be agreed between the UK and the EU because under the 2006 Constitution, the UK remains responsible for entering any international agreements on behalf of Gibraltar.
But the wider UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement – if and when it is finally agreed – will reflect Gibraltar’s constitutional relationship with the UK, meaning the definition of the term UK in the agreement will include Gibraltar.
There is acceptance too that the practical implementation of the benefits and obligations of such agreements can only rest with the Gibraltar Government.
Alongside the protocol will be a set of agreements with Spain on practical measures covering tax cooperation, police and customs cooperation, the environment, citizens’ rights and tobacco, according to No.6 Convent Place.
Details of the content of those agreements have not been released but the Gibraltar Government has repeatedly stated that it will not accept anything that impacts on Gibraltar long-established red lines on sovereignty, or anything that impinges on the ingredients of jurisdiction and control.
Although the potential joint use of the airport had formed part of discussions stretching back months, No.6 Convent Place made no mention of it in statements on the latest phase of the negotiations, suggesting the thorny issue may have been parked to one side.
Additionally, aspects of the practical agreements will be time-limited to the end of the transition period in December 2020.
According to No.6 Convent Place, the UK-EU agreement will establish a joint committee between the UK and the EU overseeing separate another layer of specialised committees covering areas like Gibraltar, Northern Ireland and Cyprus.
“We are moments away from agreeing a whole package,” Chief Minister Fabian Picardo told the Chronicle last night as he returned to the Rock following 10 days of round-the-clock intense negotiations in London and Brussels.
“If all key elements are agreed, we may be able to finalise everything.”
But Mr Picardo, who has been accompanied throughout the negotiations by Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia and Attorney General Michael Llamas, also made clear that the deal was not yet sealed.
“Every element is crucial for us,” he said.
“Everything stands or falls together.”
The latest developments came as Prime Minister Theresa May urged the European Union not to allow a stand-off over the so-called Irish backstop to derail Brexit talks, saying she believed a deal was still achievable in the coming weeks.
Addressing a rowdy session of the House of Commons before she headed to Brussels for a summit on Wednesday, Mrs May was upbeat about the chances of a deal, but repeated she would not agree to anything that could split the United Kingdom.
With less than six months before Britain leaves the bloc, talks stalled at the weekend over how to ensure there is no return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
The stalemate has increased the possibility of Britain leaving the bloc without an agreement, a “no deal Brexit” which could potentially disrupt trade, delay movement of goods, and starve the world’s fifth largest economy of investment.
Yesterday in the Commons, after numerous questions on the Norther Ireland logjam, Labour MP Liz McInness asked Mrs May about “…progress being made about the other border between the UK and the EU, the one between Gibraltar and Spain.”
“I’m happy to say that discussions are continuing in relation to the matter because this will be, of course, part of the Withdrawal Agreement that we will look to enter into and there have been positive and constructive negotiations taking place, but they are still in progress,” the Prime Minister replied.
And in Luxembourg, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell also echoed the positive sentiment and signalled that an agreement on Gibraltar was close.
“I don’t think Gibraltar is a problem,” he told reporters.
“There is a protocol in the draft agreement and this protocol was gareed with the United Kingdom, so Gibraltar is not a rock on the way.”
Asked if the main stumbling block to a wider UK/EU agreement remained the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, he added: “This is another question and it’s more difficult to solve than Gibraltar.”
“But in Europe, agreements never come before the end of the [negotiating] time.”
“We don’t have to dramatise. We still have time, we still have one month.”
Mr Borrell drew a distinction between the protocol for Gibraltar’s inclusion in the Withdrawal Agreement – “which is part of the Treaty and is close to being resolved,” he said – and what he described as the “annexed memorandums”, a reference to the agreements with Spain on the practical measures.
Mr Borrell described the memorandums as being “bilateral between the Spain and the United Kingdom” – although he did not clarify that in this context the term UK covers Gibraltar and its constitutional responsibilities and competencies.
He acknowledged though that even in the absence of agreement on the memorandums, the protocol was almost finalised and would stand as part of the Withdrawal Agreement.
The memorandums, in other words, would not stand in the way of Gibraltar’s inclusion in the agreement or the transitional arrangements.
“As such, if tomorrow there was agreement on Brexit, I don’t think Gibraltar would be a problem because the protocol that is part of the [withdrawal] agreement is well on the road to a solution,” Mr Borrell said.
“The memorandums are something else, but these could be agreed now or not, they do not affect the body of the treaty.”
One of the biggest question marks facing Gibraltar at present is what happens to the Gibraltar protocol and any associated agreements with Spain should talks toward a wider Withdrawal Agreement collapse into a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
Last night, Mr Picardo left open the possibility that even in that worst-case scenario – a situation which all parties hope to avoid – something could be salvaged from months of discrete, delicate negotiations between Gibraltar, the UK and EU members including Spain.
“There is a basis in these documents for an agreement covering our transitional relationship with the EU and Spain,” the Chief Minister told the Chronicle.
“Whether it can come into effect – de facto or de jure – without a Withdrawal Agreement to hang off is up for discussion.”
Last night Mr Picardo appeared on GBC to provide updates on the latest developments. He also later addressed the annual general meeting of the GSLP.
But he and his team remained on-call to depart again at short notice.
The Attorney General remained in Brussels and Financial Secretary Albert Mena was in Madrid with the Commissioner of Income Tax, John Lester, discussing fiscal and tax issues.
And the Chief Minister stressed that the backdrop to Gibraltar’s negotiations was the wider UK-EU discussions of which Gibraltar was a part.
“The outcome of those negotiations will clearly have a bearing on the Gibraltar aspect of Brexit,” he said.
Pic by Johnny Bugeja