A last-minute deal has been agreed to defuse the Brexit row over Gibraltar, but each side has differing interpretations as to what it means in practice.
The deal is outside the legally-binding text of the draft Withdrawal Agreement and comes in the shape of a number of political commitments made by the UK and the EU about the next phase of Brexit – the negotiation on the future relationship between the UK and the EU – and whether or not it will automatically apply to Gibraltar.
EU member states have given Spain a commitment similar to that contained in the controversial Clause 24 veto in the first phase of negotiations on withdrawal.
The EU 27 have rallied around Spain and said any future relationship between Gibraltar and the bloc “…will require a prior agreement of the Kingdom of Spain” and must be negotiated separately to the main UK discussions.
The UK, meanwhile, has told the EU that nothing in the Withdrawal Agreement creates an “obligation or presumption” about its territorial scope.
That means that, for the UK, nothing in the legally-binding text automatically includes or excludes Gibraltar – or any other UK territories – from the scope of any future deal.
But the UK has also reaffirmed its position that it will negotiate its future relationship on behalf of the UK and all of its territories, a position seemingly at odds with the EU’s commitment to Spain.
Prime Minister Theresa May said in Brussels on Saturday evening: “We will always negotiate on behalf of the whole UK family, including Gibraltar … We have worked through the withdrawal issues for Gibraltar in a constructive and sensible way.”
That last statement was welcomed by Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, who signalled that he sees Gibraltar’s future as being less with the EU than with the wider world.
“Throughout our history we’ve stuck with Britain,” Mr Picardo said.
“After Brexit, we will stick with Britain in the future too. This is our most important relationship.”
“And as the UK establishes new trading and other relationships around the world, we look forward to the opportunities that will come from the benefits of our common language, our common law and the ties that bind us with the Commonwealth of nations around the world.”
Saturday’s deal unlocks the impasse that threatened to derail Brexit on the eve of a special summit on Sunday at which the European Council is due to rubber-stamp the Withdrawal Agreement and the parallel political declaration on the future relationship.
But it also leaves little doubt that the next phase of the process, the negotiations on the future relationship, will prove difficult as far as Gibraltar is concerned.
On social media in Gibraltar, the immediate reaction to the news was negative, with many people fearful of what it might mean for a community that fervently cherishes its British sovereignty and identity.
Mr Picardo is due to make a statement this evening at 8pm in response to news of the EU’s commitments to Spain.
In Madrid, the Spanish Government said it had secured a “historic” breakthrough and signalled it would raise the issue of joint sovereignty during the talks on the future relationship.
“We have received sufficient guarantees to be able to reach a solution to a conflict that has lasted more than 300 years between the United Kingdom and Spain,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told reporters in Madrid.
Saturday’s agreements may comfort Spain’s hopes that the EU will, once Britain is no longer a member, swing behind its 300-year-old sovereignty aspirations over the Rock.
But Mr Sanchez’ brinkmanship has left some in Brussels uneasy at how he jeopardised a tightly choreographed three hours on Sunday morning for what many saw as domestic political purposes — he faces a regional election next weekend in Andalucia.
In any event, the biggest obstacle to the Brexit accord is the vehement opposition in the British parliament.
Without its approval, Britain could leave the bloc on March 29 without an agreement to mitigate economic and legal disruption.
Former Brexit minister Dominic Raab on Friday said he expected the House of Commons to vote the deal it down.
Prime Minister Theresa May responded that Britain would not get a better deal with the EU if it did not take this one.
The impasse began earlier this week after Spain threatened to “veto” the draft Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the UK and the EU over fears that Article 184 in effect opened the door to Gibraltar’s automtaic inclusion in any future relationship with the EU after Brexit.
Spain wanted to change the agreement to ensure it stated clearly that Madrid would have the deciding voice in the application of any future agreement to Gibraltar, much as it had with Clause 24 in the withdrawal phase of the negotiations.
After two days of intense exchanges and backroom negotiation, Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU, wrote this afternoon to Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen, the secretary general of the European Council, setting out the UK’s position to defuse the row, which threatened to derail Brexit.
The letter included an interpretative declaration from the UK to the European Council stating that the clause in question “imposes no obligations regarding the territorial scope” of the future arrangements.
Additionally, Article 184 did not create any “obligation or presumption” that the future agreement would have the same territorial scope as the Withdrawal Agreement, which includes Gibraltar.
In effect, the declaration means that there is no automatic assumption that Gibraltar will be included in any future agreement negotiated by the UK and the EU after Brexit.
The UK letter, however, also made clear London’s publicly-stated commitment to negotiate a future deal on behalf of all its territories, including Gibraltar.
“This interpretation is, of course, without prejudice to Her Majesty’s Government’s policy and view that it will negotiate the future agreements implementing the Joint Political Declaration on behalf of all territories for whose external relations the UK is responsible to ensure an appropriate and beneficial future relationship with the European Union, taking into account their existing relationships with the European Union,” Sir Tim wrote.
Significantly, the legally-binding text of the Withdrawal Agreement remains untouched. The interpretative declarations are contained in parallel documents that carry political weight but have no legal status.
In Madrid Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who has been sharply criticised by opposition parties over his handling of Brexit and Gibraltar, gave a triumphalist press conference in which he said Spain had achieved “historic” commitments from its EU partners and from the UK.
Alongside the UK letter, the European Council and the European Union will declare, in approving the Brexit deal with Britain on Sunday, that any future arrangements regarding Gibraltar must first be discussed directly with Madrid.
“After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, Gibraltar will not be included in the territorial scope of the agreements to be concluded between the Union and the United Kingdom,” the draft document agreed with Spain said.
“However, this does not preclude the possibility to have separate agreements between the Union and the United Kingdom in respect of Gibraltar.”
“Without prejudice to the competences of the Union and in full respect of the territorial integrity of its Member States as guaranteed by Article 4(2) of the Treaty on the European Union, those separate agreements will require a prior agreement of the Kingdom of Spain.”
For Spain, the EU commitment recognising the concept of territorial integrity in this context was of “transcendental importance,” Mr Sanchez said.
The Prime Minister insisted that the EU had “accepted Spain’s demands” and that the various agreements represented “a triple lock” in defence of Spanish interests.
He said any future relationship between Gibraltar and the EU “will first have to pass through Spain”, adding that “we will have to talk about joint sovereignty” in the negotiations for the future agreement.
But the agreement was rubbished by the Partido Popular, whose leader found out through the media.
Esteban Gonzalez Pons, the PP’s spokesman in the European Parliament, said it was “a disaster”, adding that the UK commitment had “no legal standing”.
“This is what I feared, they haven’t known how to negotiate, they’ve been tricked and they’re bluffing,” he said, according to the rightwing newspaper ABC.
“Settling for this is to lose.”
‘DEEP, UNBREAKABLE BONDS’
In Gibraltar, the Gibraltar Government said it welcomed the UK’s “unwavering commitment” that it will negotiate future trade and other arrangements with the EU that work for all of the British family of nations, including Gibraltar.
It said Gibraltar was linked to the UK by “deep and unbreakable bonds” and that these “have not in any way, and will not be in any way” be diluted by Brexit.
Gibraltar’s departure from the EU would have no effect on Gibraltar’s British sovereignty and that of the waters that surround the Rock, No.6 Convent Place said.
Even though Gibraltarians had voted overwhelmingly to remain, Gibraltar would exit the EU alongside the UK because Britain guaranteed the Rock’s “security, prosperity and the rule of law”.
MAIN PHOTO: Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez at a press conference today. REUTERS/Sergio Perez