Spain used its address to the UN Fourth Committee yesterday to underscore its historical aspirations over the Rock’s sovereignty, but also to signal its hope that Gibraltar could enjoy a relationship of shared prosperity with the neighbouring Campo de Gibraltar after Brexit.
The bulk of the address by Agustín Santos, Spain’s recently-appointed permanent representative to the UN, set out in detail Madrid’s well-known position on Gibraltar, the isthmus and the waters surrounding the Rock.
At first blush, the speech was laced with the usual bugbears that have plagued most of Spain’s speeches to the UN on the subject of Gibraltar, including references to tobacco smuggling, Gibraltar’s tax model and the suggestion that the Rock created “serious distortions” to the economy of the neighbouring region.
But the body of the address focused on a historical, legalistic analysis of the Spanish position, and every snipe at Gibraltar was counterbalanced with a reference to the pursuit of a more constructive relationship.
The ambassador hit out at what he described as the “economic imbalanace” created by Gibraltar’s “one of a kind” fiscal regime, which he said had a negative impact on the Campo by encouraging tobacco smuggling, and in other areas including “tax, the environment and even the deterioration of public safety”.
But he prefaced that with a nod to ongoing efforts to reach consensus on practical measures to mitigate the impact of Brexit on Gibraltar and the neighbouring region.
“Spain has no problem whatsoever with the local population of Gibraltar prospering in terms of its quality of life,” Mr Santos said.
“On the contrary, we believe there exists enormous potential to improve relations between both sides of the fence, with a knock-on economic and social impact.”
Throughout the speech, there were were subtle differences in tone too from Spain’s contributions in recent years, in particular the period when the Partido Popular’s Jose Manuel García-Margallo was Foreign Minister.
Mr Santos underlined Spain’s longstanding view that Gibraltar was an “illegal” colony that undermined Spanish territorial integrity, but unlike in previous years, his address contained no explicit calls for a return to bilateral sovereignty negotiations. Neither was there any mention of joint sovereignty.
Instead, there were oblique references to UN resolutions, the Brussels process and what he termed as the UK’s “erratic” conduct in respect of Gibraltar and, as far as Spain was concerned, its failure to comply with obligations under international law.
The message was the same as always, but the language was more nuanced and restrained.
Mr Santos acknowledged that there had been no movement on Gibraltar for the past five decades, but said the “fundamental obstacle” was “strictly political and resides in the goodwill of the British Government”.
The Spanish ambassador, who hails from Málaga, is no stranger to Gibraltar and the different positions of the Spanish, UK and Gibraltar governments in respect of decolonisation and sovereignty.
A career diplomat who joined the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in 1982, Mr Santos took up his post at the UN on September 5 but had previously been chief of staff for Miguel Angel Moratinos, the former Socialist Foreign Minister who negotiated the Cordoba agreement as part of the trilateral process.
Mr Santos was speaking just a fortnight after Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez addressed the UN General Assembly and set out his hopes that Brexit would create “prosperity and benefits” for Gibraltar and the wider surrounding region.
Mr Santos repeated that position on Brexit yesterday, although unlike Mr Sánchez, he made no reference to the Gibraltarians and instead focused mainly on the Campo.
In doing so, he included a thinly-veiled reference to the controversial clause 24 of the EU’s negotiating guidelines, which purports to give Spain a veto on Gibraltar’s inclusion in any withdrawal deal and transitional arrangements agreed by the EU and the UK.
“The historic circumstance of Brexit will lead to a new relationship between the European Union and Gibraltar, which inevitably must pass through Spain,” he said.
“Our desire is that this relationship generates prosperity and is beneficial for all the region of the Campo de Gibraltar.”
“Given that its inhabitants are the ones who will be principally affected by the problems stemming from the Gibraltarian question, I want to reiterate to them that their rights and interests will be defended by the Government of Spain in every negotiation in respect of Gibraltar.”
Throughout his address, the ambassador repeatedly underscored Spain’s commitment to dialogue, which he said had allowed the annual consensus decision on Gibraltar every year since 1975, despite the different positions on the issue of sovereignty and decolonisation.
Mr Santos said Spain also remained open to establishing “with the United Kingdom” an agreement to implement a framework for regional cooperation “for the direct benefit of the inhabitants on either side of the fence”.
“Spain, I reiterate, remains open to dialogue,” he said.