Spain and the European Union were told unequivocally yesterday that Gibraltar’s British sovereignty will never be bartered against the wishes of its people and that the Rock must be included in any future relationship agreed by the UK and the EU after Brexit.
The message was delivered almost simultaneously by Chief Minister Fabian Picardo in the Gibraltar Parliament and Prime Minister Theresa May in the House of Commons.
It came as negotiators in Brussels agreed a text for the proposed political declaration that accompanies the Withdrawal Agreement and sets out a framework for talks on future EU/UK relations.
European Council president Donald Tusk announced that the text had been agreed in draft form by EU and UK negotiators and “agreed in principle at political level”.
A leaked copy of the draft text made no mention of Gibraltar, despite threats from Spain that it would vote against the Withdrawal Agreement and the declaration unless they specified that Gibraltar’s inclusion in any future arrangements between the UK and the EU must first be decided directly by officials in Madrid and London.
London and Brussels are loathe to reopen the draft agreement and or the declaration to entertain last-minute objections raised by individual EU member states.
Although they do not state so openly, some officials believe the Spanish position is driven more by party political concerns ahead of regional elections in Andalucia on December 2, rather than genuine concern about the future negotiation.
Gibraltar’s absence from the leaked copy of the political declaration was taken as by Spanish opposition parties as a snub by Brussels to the Socialist government of Pedro Sanchez.
In London, Mrs May told the Commons that she had spoken to Mr Sanchez and made the UK’s position clear.
“We have been working constructively with the governments of Spain and Gibraltar in the negotiations on the withdrawal agreement and we want this work to continue in the future relationship,” Mrs May said.
“But I was absolutely clear that Gibraltar’s British sovereignty will be protected and that the future relationship we agree must work for the whole UK family.”
In Gibraltar, the Chief Minister reinforced that message for the avoidance of any doubt.
“Brexit is a bad thing for the whole of Europe,” Mr Picardo said.
“Brexit without an agreement for orderly agreed withdrawal would be even worse for the whole of Europe.”
“And for us, Brexit is as bad an idea today in reality as when it was in theory at the time of the Referendum.”
“But so for us, it is always best that we stick with Britain despite Brexit.”
“We have stuck with Britain in the past. And we will stick with Britain in the future.”
There was support too from the Opposition bench in the Gibraltar Parliament, where the Leader of the Opposition, GSD MP Elliott Phillips, said expressed concern about speculation that Spain might raise joint sovereignty during negotiations for the future relationship.
“From these benches, that is entirely unacceptable to Her Majesty’s Opposition, and to the people of Gibraltar,” he said.
“The position of the Spanish Government raises further concerns as to [its] commitment to adhere to any agreement over Gibraltar.”
“For now we reserve our assessment until such time as the position becomes clearer but continue to express our misgivings.”
“I am sure that we share the dismay of the whole House that Spain should be seeking to exclude Gibraltar from the negotiations on the future relationship with the EU until it gains a political advantage.”
“The [Gibraltar] Government will need to remain vigilant that nothing is changed in the current text of the Withdrawal Agreement to further undermine Gibraltar’s position.”
The controversy over Madrid’s objections to the Withdrawal Agreement came as Gibraltar, the UK and Spain finalised parallel work on agreements that will provide a framework for cooperation between Gibraltar and Spain after Brexit.
Mr Picardo briefed the Cabinet and the Brexit Select Committee on that package of measures, which he and his team had finalised with the UK and Spain in Madrid this week.
The package includes four memorandums of understanding on citizens’ rights, tobacco market access, cooperation on environmental issues and cooperation on police and customs matters.
There is also a tax treaty that sets out provisions on fiscal transparency and tax residency rules of the type found in a double taxation or information exchange agreement.
Gibraltar has such agreements with many other countries and has long sought one with Spain, Mr Picardo said.
All of those agreements are now “virtually complete, subject to a common final political agreement” Mr Picardo told Parliament.
The Chief Minister expects to make a ministerial statement on the nature and effect of those measures next week, once the European Council has reached final agreement on the Withdrawal Agreement and political declaration on the future relationship.
“Nothing in these documents compromises any of our red lines,” Mr Picardo said.
“Nothing in them alters in any way whatsoever our Constitution and constitutional competences.”
“There are and there will be no concessions on matters of sovereignty, jurisdiction or control.”
“In fact, they are expressly arrangements entered into without prejudice to all sovereignty positions.”
“Neither do these documents require us to do things that we have any problem in doing.”
All of the MoUs – except for the tax treaty and the agreement on citizens’ rights – create obligations only until the end of December 2020, or the end of the 21-month transition period.
“Unless we agree otherwise, they drop dead then,” Mr Picardo said.
The Chief Minister told Parliament that “nothing has been imposed” on Gibraltar and that everything agreed would be implemented in line with the Gibraltar Constitution.
“All the commitments entered into, whether under the Protocol or the MoUs concerning Gibraltar, have been negotiated by Gibraltar and the United Kingdom together,” he said.
“They are commitments entered into only as a result of the consent of the Cabinet of Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar having been expressly given.”
“The Government is the guardian of the Constitution as much as this legislature or the judiciary may be.”
“We would not have countenanced agreeing to anything which might have resulted in our constitutional order somehow being compromised.”
Unsurprisingly perhaps, there was a different interpretation of the agreements in the Spanish Congress in Madrid, where Spain’s state secretary for European affairs, Marco Aguiriano, briefed Spanish MPs on the latest Brexit developments, including the agreements with Gibraltar.
Mr Aguiriano left no doubt that Spain believes the Gibraltar Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement gives Spain a role in how certain EU laws are applied to Gibraltar.
“It is the first time that any primary EU legislation will recognise Spain’s involvement, and its right to be consulted, on certain aspects of the application of EU law on the Rock,” he said.
He also sketched out the content of the various agreements that stemmed from the protocol.
He said the tax treaty would tackle “tax fraud” and “unfair competition”, while the agreement on citizens’ rights would protect the interests of cross-border workers who, he said, would benefit from the same rights as Gibraltarian workers.
He spoke too of tobacco, letting slip that the memorandum including a commitment that the differential between prices in Gibraltar and Spain would be “no more than 32%” by June 2020.
On the environment, he said the agreement would establish a technical committee for cooperation and enable Spanish artisanal fishermen to fish with “absolute normality”, as well as implement a moratorium on reclamation through to the end of the transition period.
The last memorandum on police and customs cooperation sought to coordinate efforts to tackle organised crime in the area of the Strait of Gibraltar, a shared goal of all three governments.
Last night, the Gibraltar Government was closely monitoring the statements made in the Spanish Congress by Mr Aguiriano, who was still speaking as this edition went to press.
However, questioned by the Chronicle, a spokesman for No.6 Convent Place said Mr Aguiriano was giving the agreements a spin that was not based on fact.
“The statements from Sr Aguiriano are not based on any possible proper interpretation of the texts,” the spokesman said.
“The publication of the MoUs will demonstrate this.”
“There is nothing in any of them or the Protocol which will allows Spain to be consulted in any way about the implementation of EU law in Gibraltar.”
“His description of the content of the various agreements on tax, citizens’ rights, environment and tobacco is also off the mark, not least because much of what he describes is already in place under EU laws.”
Despite the different messaging in Gibraltar and Madrid, Mr Picardo said Gibraltar remained committed dialogue and cooperation that respected red lines on sovereignty and jurisdiction.
The Chief Minister told Parliament that without Gibraltar’s inclusion in the Withdrawal Agreement, the Rock would not be covered by the transitional arrangements designed to cushion the blow of exit from the bloc.
Mr Picardo added too that it was time to consider what type of future relationship Gibraltar wanted with Spain, “our geographic gateway to Europe”.
Gibraltar, he said, had more reasons for cooperation or discussion with Spain than with any other remaining EU nations.
“So we wish to continue, in our discussions about the future, to engage directly with Spain also in the spirit of cooperation and positive engagement we have enjoyed in this withdrawal phase of the negotiations,” Mr Picardo said.
“No one should think that we read any part of the Withdrawal Agreement in any way that would persuade us to avoid that genuine, human and political reality.”
“Nobody needs a veto to bring us to the table.”
“At this critical time in Europe’s history, Gibraltar can be the strongest foundation stone for a future relationship between the UK and the EU, not a rock on the road to agreement.”
“That is our firm commitment and resolve.”
Main photo: Jon Nazca/REUTERS