Brexit row over Gibraltar escalates as UK accuses EU of undermining British sovereignty
A Brexit row over Gibraltar dramatically escalated on Tuesday as the UK accused Brussels of failing to negotiate in the “real world” and moving to undermine British soverignty .
At a meeting in the EU capital the bloc’s commissioners presented plans to remove checks on people and goods at the land border between Spain and Gibraltar.
But the details of the plan caused anger in London as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused the EU of backtracking on previous promises.
The government is concerned that Spain is pushing to extends its influence over the Iberian territory, whose status is a historic bone of contention with Madrid.
The UK is concerned that the EU negotiating mandate, which is yet to be published but has been leaked to the Spanish press, includes plans for Spanish officials to carry out border checks at ports and airports.
The British government wants agents from the EU border agency Frontex to carry out the checks and is concerned that giving the responsibility for administration to Spain would look too much like a concession to Spanish sovereignty of the territory.
“The UK, with Gibraltar, and Spain carefully agreed a pragmatic Framework Agreement, in full consultation with the EU Commission,” the Foreign Secretary said in a statement on Tuesday evening.
“The Commission’s proposed mandate, published today, directly conflicts with that Framework. It seeks to undermine the UK’s sovereignty over Gibraltar, and cannot form a basis for negotiations.
“We have consistently showed pragmatism and flexibility in the search for arrangements that work for all sides, and we are disappointed that this has not been reciprocated. We urge the EU to think again.”
Gibraltar’s government, which wants tight integration with the EU but is equally fiercely in favour of preserving British sovereignty, meanwhile said there was “no possibility” of EU plans for Spanish officials to play a role ever being agreed to.
The territory was not included in the scope of the EU-EU Brexit agreement after pressure from Spain during the first round of talks. Madrid only approved the main Brexit withdrawal agreement on the basis that separate talks could take place over the British enclave.
The issue of the rock is politically sensitive in Spain, with most politicians at least paying lip service to Spain’s claim to the island.
Gibraltar had a land border with Spain prior to Brexit but the territory’s government has since indicated that it wants to to be part of the Schengen area – in part to make life easier for the thousands of people who commute across the border every day and who currently have to show their documents.
Vice-president Maroš Šefčovič, the EU’s Brexit chief since the retirement of Michel Barnier said in a statement: “By putting forward this draft mandate, we are honouring the political commitment we made to Spain to start the negotiations of a separate agreement between the EU and the UK on Gibraltar.
“This is a detailed mandate, which aims to have a positive impact for those living and working on either side of the border between Spain and Gibraltar, while protecting the integrity of the Schengen Area and the Single Market.”
Gibraltar’s government also echoed some UK concerns. In a statement released on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the administration said that “in many respects the [EU] mandate strays unhelpfully from the Framework Agreement agreed by the UK and Gibraltar with Spain on 31 December last year”.
They added: “As a result, the mandate may, unfortunately, not form the basis for the negotiation of an agreement on a UK treaty with the EU. We will continue to work with the government of the United Kingdom as we explore all possibilities.
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“Additionally, we will also continue the work to be ready in the event that there may not be a negotiated outcome with the EU and that Gibraltar will not enjoy a treaty relationship with the EU going forward.”
The territory’s chief minister Fabian Picardo said: “The draft EU mandate is a matter for them, of course. But I must say that on the basis of the current draft, there is no possibility of this forming the basis for an agreement.
“We will work closely with the United Kingdom, especially Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, to continue to seek the best possible outcomes for Gibraltar.”