Spain welcomes post-Brexitchance for Gibraltartalks with UK

Spain welcomes post-Brexitchance for Gibraltartalks with UK

Spain’s foreign minister has welcomed post-Brexit talks with the UK as an “incredible opportunity” for the countries to address the status of Gibraltar after centuries of dispute.

Arancha González reacted warmly to calls by Gibraltar’s government for a freemovement area with Spain and suggested that traditional concepts of sovereignty were less important than a series of recent accords on issues such as tax and
fighting contraband.

Spain has sought to regain sovereignty over Gibraltar since Britain took control of the Mediterranean territory through the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. Madrid has at times instigated delays at its border with Gibraltar, hitting the territory’s economy.

However Ms González, who took office last month after a career focusing on international trade, argued that Spain needed to focus on “21st century sovereignty” and practical issues that would strengthen ties with the territory.

“We have an incredible opportunity to fix a number of things that we have not been able to fix in the last 300 years,” she told the Financial Times. “At the end of the day, whatever agreement we find . . . will have to work for them [for Gibraltar] and
it will have to work for us; that’s the only red line in reality.”

Spain’s position on Gibraltar is particularly important after Brexit. The EU’s member states have agreed that Madrid will have a veto over any future agreement between the bloc and the UK over the territory. That, in turn, could affect the overall deal on future EU-UK ties, which Boris Johnson, British prime minister, wants to conclude this year.

Madrid is also aware of the precedent set by provisions in the Brexit divorce agreement — which keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union and elements of the bloc’s single market — and which some analysts say could hasten a united Ireland.

“We are living in the 21st century; what we have done with the fiscal treaty is probably much more important than we realise for our sovereignty,” Ms González said, highlighting the status of a tax accord signed last year. “You do not want a zone of unfair competition next to your border.”

The tax accord was the first UK-Spain treaty on Gibraltar since Utrecht. It compels both sides to share tax information, while also confirming that workers who travel over to Gibraltar pay tax in Spain, as will any companies or individuals who move to Gibraltar from Spain in future.

Gibraltar’s economy is closely tied to the neighbouring area in Spain, since about 15,000 people cross the border to work every day, taking up about half the jobs in the territory. Most of the frontier workers are Spaniards, from an area where unemployment is about 30 per cent.

Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar’s chief minister, has called for a special deal in which Gibraltar would become part of Europe’s Schengen free-movement area, adding that under such an arrangement, the number of Spaniards working in the territory could increase dramatically.

A UK government spokesperson noted that, while neither Britain nor Gibraltar is part of Schengen, “the UK and Gibraltar governments have always supported arrangements at the border with Spain which promote fluidity and shared prosperity in the region”.

Gibraltar officials maintain that London will ultimately favour an accord that achieves such goals.

“I am not going to enter into the specifics of whether it is Schengen or a different model to Schengen,” said Ms González. “This is something that we have to work out in a dialogue that starts now.”

But she added: “The Gibraltar population needs the Spaniards to function and the Spaniards need the Gibraltarians in order to enhance their prosperity . . . What matters in the 21st century is managing interdependence.”

She said Spain also wanted an overarching EU deal with the UK that is “as ambitious as it can be”, but emphasised the bloc’s calls for a “level playing field” — British acceptance of its rules. Mr Johnson’s government says it will not accept this demand.

Ms González argued that Spain should play a “decisive” role in the post-Brexit EU now that divergences between France and Germany are appearing on issues such as defence and single market rules.

“The EU today is more fragmented,” she said. “France and Germany do not necessarily see eye to eye on many of the fundamentals . . . We [Spain] want a role where we are there, where the decisive decisions are to be made.”

The foreign minister said Spain, which she characterised as a highly open economy, opposed weakening competition rules to build EU corporate champions, since such rules were “a guarantee of the integrity of the European market”.

She signalled that Spain hoped to improve relations with the US, strained by disputes ranging from trade duties and Venezuela to the role of Huawei. King Felipe VI is scheduled to pay a state visit to Washington in April.

“Let’s make sure that the visit delivers results in terms of things that the US is interested to have and that Spain is interested to have,” she said. “We haven’t opened this conversation, but obviously we do have two military bases that are important to the US and are also important to Spain.”

A report in El País newspaper last week suggested Spain would be reluctant to allow the US to expand its presence at the southern naval base of Rota if Washington continued to impose punitive tariffs on some Spanish imports. Ms González is due to meet Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, at the Munich Security Forum this weekend.

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