The ghost of a hard Brexit is haunting Gibraltar once again. Instead of being eliminated, the border between the British Overseas Territory and Spain could become a hard border. That would cause untold problems for Spanish and British citizens who cross the Spain Gibraltar border daily for work.
Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares is meeting mayors of towns near Gibraltar amid concerns that strict checks might become reality once again.
Northern Ireland talks could get in the way
At the moment, the biggest issue for the negotiation is the stalled talks on the Northern Ireland protocol.
Last Sunday, Albares said differences over that protocol should not impact Gibraltar. “They are two different issues that have absolutely nothing to do with each other; what’s more, they are two different negotiations,” he said.
However, many feel that it will be difficult to keep the negotiations separate. Even more so as they are taking place at the same time and both depend on European Commission Vice President Maros Šefčovič.
Gibraltar voted Remain during Brexit referendum
The results of the 2016 Brexit referendum showed Gibraltar overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU. The territory was not part of the main Brexit deal between the EU and the United Kingdom. That means Spain and the UK need a separate agreement.
A preliminary framework deal was agreed on 31st December by Spain and the UK for the future relationship between the EU and Gibraltar. Under this deal, Gibraltar would join the Schengen area, despite not being formally part of the EU itself. This best-case scenario is once again hanging in the balance.
A soft border is economically better for both Spain and Gibraltar
The area of Campo de Gibraltar that neighbours the rock is economically depressed. Many workers live there and commute daily into Gibraltar. Therefore, it is a priority for both sides to avoid a hard border. Most of all, no-one wants the same scenario of isolation that occurred when General Franco closed the border in 1969. The border remained closed for a further 16 years.
Last week, European and British delegations held the first round on the future status of Gibraltar. Their aim is to reach a deal before the end of the year.
Theoretically, all they need to do is to formalise the preliminary agreement in treaty format. That would give Gibraltar all the advantages of Schengen membership, with Spain acting as the guarantor.
However, nothing in the Brexit negotiations has been smooth running so far.
Contingency agreements expire 31st October
Another issue is looming on the near horizon. The contingency agreements on healthcare for cross-border workers, the validity of UK drivers’ licenses in Spain and other practical matters expire on October 31.
This is why Minister Albares is visiting the neighbouring towns. He wants to issue a plea for calm, while still with a view that a hard-border scenario is very much a possibility.