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2nd Mar 2024

Confusion over Gibraltar border controls in UK-Spain deal

  • Gibraltar has been a pinch-point of disagreement between the UK and Spain for more than 300 years (Photo: Tony Evans)

Gibraltar is moving towards a new era after the UK and Spain on New Year's Eve reached a preliminary post-Brexit deal to avoid a hard border on the south of the Iberian peninsula.

This agreement, currently being examined by the European Commission, would allow Gibraltar - officially a "British Overseas Territory" - to join the Schengen zone that guarantees passport-free travel and freedom of movement to more than 400 million EU citizens.

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As a result, Gibraltar's port and airport would become the external borders of the Schengen area - with Spain as the member state responsible for the oversight and implementation of Schengen.

Europe's border agency Frontex will have a presence at entry and exit points in Gibraltar, in an operation expected to last four years.

Gibraltar, an area with a population of around 34,000 people, has been a matter of often antagonistic discussion and debate since the disputed territory was ceded to Great Britain under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.

But a new row was sparked after Spanish foreign minister Arancha González Laya said her country would have the last word on who can enter Gibraltar, under the preliminary agreement.

In an interview published on Saturday by Spanish newspaper El País, González Laya said that "to be able to enter a Gibraltar which is integrated into the Schengen area, the responsibility for [border] controls will be in Spanish hands - [both] at the port and the airport".

"Schengen is a set of rules, procedures and tools, including its database, to which only Spain has access. Gibraltar and the United Kingdom do not," she also said, without giving further details.

Responding to the interview comments, Gibraltar's chief minister Fabian Picardo tweeted: "Under the New Year's Eve agreement only Gibraltar will decide who enters Gibraltar and Spanish officers will not exercise any controls in Gibraltar at the airport or port now or in four years' time. This is our land. Couldn't be clearer."

The Spanish ministry of foreign affairs, when contacted by EUobserver, declined to clarify whether Spanish authorities will be physically controlling Gibraltar's airport and port.

The cabinet of Gibraltar's chief minister also did not respond to EUobserver's questions.

The details of the agreement are expected to become public in the coming days.

Sovereignty sensibilities

Meanwhile, experts argued that it is clear that a European border cannot be controlled exclusively by non-European officials.

"This is the usual debate that tends to confuse sovereignty issues with practical questions," said Enrique Feás, senior policy analyst associated with the think tank Real Instituto Elcano.

"In the end, there will be a practical solution. The Gibraltar deal aims to find solutions to practical issues and not to harm the Spanish economy near Gibraltar, or the economy of Gibraltar, unnecessarily. This is only possible by allowing free movement," he added.

For Feás, allowing the British Overseas Territory to join the Schengen area raises "practical problems that can hurt sensibilities related to the question of Gibraltar's sovereignty".

"Yet, the lack of an agreement with Gibraltar would have harmed both parties and it would have been the same or worse [for Spain] in terms of sovereignty," he said.

For his part, the former Spanish foreign minister and current MEP Juan Manuel García-Margallo, who has been advocating for the co-sovereignty of Gibraltar for years, said that Spain has failed to seize the opportunity that Brexit had offered.

"The Spanish government said from the very beginning that in no case the issue of Gibraltar's sovereignty would be discussed [with the UK], which means renouncing to all the bases of the negotiation, including Spain's veto right in the UE-UK deal," García-Margallo told EUobserver.

The Gibraltar deal, which still needs the approval of the European Commission, will be part of the UK-EU treaty that should be ready within six months.

While the treaty is being prepared, London and Madrid have also agreed to extend for six months three memorandums of understanding for cooperation regarding tobacco, the environment, customs and policing cooperation - which were signed in 2018 and due to expire on 31 December.

Meanwhile, the two countries are also in talks over a post-Brexit security and defence deal, which will contain "measures of trust" regarding the base in Gibraltar, El País reported.

This base has been a matter of diplomatic tensions in the past.

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