The UK and Gibraltar governments presented a firm, united stance yesterday as the EU rubber-stamped the Brexit divorce deal, insisting Gibraltar would be included in any negotiations for a future trade deal with the EU despite Spanish claims to the contrary – and dismissing Madrid’s plans to put joint sovereignty back on the table.
After a weekend of intense, fast-moving political drama in which Spain claimed to have secured the upper hand in negotiations relating to Gibraltar, the message from the UK was unequivocal.
“The UK’s position on the sovereignty of Gibraltar has not changed and will not change,” Prime Minister Theresa May said, insisting she would negotiate for the whole “UK family” including the Rock.
“I am proud that Gibraltar is British and I will always stand by Gibraltar.”
EU leaders formally agreed the divorce deal at a special summit in Brussels, urging Britons to back Mrs May’s package, which faces furious opposition in the UK parliament.
The 27 leaders took barely half an hour to rubber-stamp a nearly 800-page treaty setting terms for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU on March 29 and a 26-page declaration outlining a future free trading relationship. Mrs May joined them shortly afterwards to seal the accord.
“This is the deal,” EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters on his way in to the meeting, saying he believed Mrs May would get it through parliament and ruling out big new concessions.
Mr Juncker called it “a sad day”, saying Brexit was a “tragedy” and tough on both sides.
“Now it is time for everybody to take responsibility — everybody,” said Michel Barnier, the Frenchman who has ground out the withdrawal treaty over the past 18 months.
Yesterday’s deal was very nearly derailed at the last minute after Spain raised concerns that it opened the door to Gibraltar’s automatic inclusion in the future negotiation.
The Spanish Government had vehemently fought for the text of the withdrawal treaty to be reopened to address its concerns.
The EU and the UK refused, fearful of opening a Pandora’s Box of demands from EU members states and UK politicians. Instead, they addressed Spain’s fears through a series of political declarations outside the legally-binding texts of the divorce deal itself.
But within minutes of the deal being announced, it was clear there were sharply differing views of what these declarations meant in practice.
Spain said they represented the most significant development on Gibraltar in 300 years, insisting its position had been strengthened by the “solidarity” shown by its EU partners.
Spain had secured declarations from the European Council and the European Commission saying Gibraltar would not be included in the scope of the UK/EU future trade negotiations but would instead have to be discussed separately.
Not only that, any agreement on Gibraltar would first have to be negotiated between London and Madrid.
The declarations also included a reference that any agreement on Gibraltar would have to be in line with EU treaty obligations on the territorial integrity of member states.
Mr Sanchez said this represented “a historic landmark” for Spain, “…in which the Spanish negotiating position with the United Kingdom is redefined in respect of the Gibraltar question.”
“We are in a position of strength such as we have never enjoyed, with the European Union acknowledging the position that Spain has always maintained in respect of Gibraltar,” he said.
‘NO LEGAL VALIDITY’
But the UK offered a different take on the developments, as did the Spanish opposition.
Pablo Casado, the leader of the Partido Popular, described the agreement on Gibraltar as “a humiliation” that had “no legal validity”.
In an unusual twist, the UK and Gibraltar shared the PP’s assessment that the declaration, while politically significant, had no legal standing. The text of the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement remained untouched.
The political declaration offered by London clarified that, for the UK Government, the Withdrawal Agreement created no “obligation or presumption” about the territorial scope of the future trade deal.
In a letter to the European Council delivered by the UK’s permanent representative to the EU, Sir Tim Barrow, London said nothing in the legally-binding text automatically included or excluded Gibraltar – or any other UK territories – from the scope of any future deal.
Implicit in that interpretation was that, in legal terms at least, the door remained open.
And from the Prime Minister down, the UK made clear its intention for the forthcoming negotiations, in statements that were sharply at odds with Spain’s position.
“This is a deal that works for the whole UK family – including our Overseas Territories and the Crown Dependencies,” Mrs May said on Sunday after the summit.
“On Gibraltar, we have worked constructively with Spain throughout this process and I want to thank Fabian Picardo for the statesmanlike role he has played.”
“We have ensured that Gibraltar is covered by the Withdrawal Agreement and by the implementation period.”
“Let no-one be in any doubt: for the future partnership the UK will be negotiating for the whole UK family, including Gibraltar.”
“I am proud that Gibraltar is British and its constitutional status will not change.”
Yesterday, after the EU approved the divorce deal and Spain had trumpeted its supposed gains, Sir Tim Barrow delivered another set of letters to the European Council and the European Commission.
In those letters, he stated the UK had no doubt over its sovereignty of Gibraltar, including British Gibraltar Territorial Waters.
He also specifically reminded the EU of the “double lock” on sovereignty, to the effect that Gibraltar’s sovereignty would never be transferred against the freely and democratically expressed wishes of the people of Gibraltar.
The ambassador also reminded the EU that the UK had given an additional assurance to the people of Gibraltar that it would not enter into a process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar was not content.
Sir Tim also reaffirmed the UK’s negotiating position for the future relationship, writing: “The Government of the United Kingdom further restates that it will negotiate the future agreements implementing the Joint Political Declaration on behalf of all territories for whose external relations the United Kingdom is responsible, including Gibraltar, to ensure an appropriate and beneficial future relationship with the European Union, taking into account their existing relationships with the European Union.”
He asked that the letter be forwarded to all EU member states.
The UK’s robust response to the EU was welcomed in Gibraltar by the Chief Minister, who said he was happy London had reacted to specific points raised by Spain over the course of the weekend.
“This communication from the UK directly counters and knocks on the head any idea that the United Kingdom might in any way have agreed any aspect of the statement from the EU27 about Gibraltar’s future status,” Mr Picardo said.
“Additionally, the letter from the UK counters any kills dead any suggestion that the UK might have accepted any part of the Spanish attempt to exclude Gibraltar from the negotiations of the future UK/EU agreements.”
“These letters set out the position of the United Kingdom clearly and unequivocally and they will be delivered to the Spanish Government.”
“They put on the diplomatic record the position already clearly and unequivocally set out by the Prime Minister herself in all her public statements on the subject.”
Mr Picardo thanked Mrs May for her “stalwart and unflinching” defence of Gibraltar, its British sovereignty and its economic interests.
He said the Withdrawal Agreement, which will face fierce opposition in the House of Commons in coming weeks and could yet be defeated, was “the best way” for the UK and Gibraltar to leave the EU in a “managed and orderly fashion”.
Over the course of the weekend, Mr Picardo also launched a fierce defence of Gibraltar’s British sovereignty, making clear to Spain that its aspirations would meet a dead end.
At a triumphalist press conference on Saturday after the deal was announced, the Spanish Prime Minister said Spain would raise joint sovereignty during the forthcoming talks on the future arrangements, a position he appeared to back away from slightly on Sunday, when he
said there was “no need to rush any scenario”.
That may have been a response to a tough message from the Chief Minister, who on Saturday night lambasted Mr Sanchez’ for adopting Francoist policies on Gibraltar.
“We do not need to wait until the start of the talks,” Mr Picardo said in a live broadcast on GBC.
“I can tell Spain now. We are not interested in any dilution of our sovereignty.”
“We are not interested in allowing for even the remotest concession to Spanish sovereignty, jurisdiction or control.”
Mr Picardo, reflecting on the Socialist government’s plan to exhume the remains of Spanish dictator General Franco from the mausoleum at the Valle de los Caidos, said there was a better way for Mr Sanchez demonstrate Spain’s democratic credentials.
“Abandoning the politics of Franco in respect of the sovereignty of Gibraltar would be a more effective way of turning over a new leaf,” he said.
“Better that than simply moving the bones of a dead man from one part of Madrid to another.”