Future of Gibraltar settled on eve of Brexit

In the final hours before Brexit, Spain and Britain concluded an Agreement to avoid a ‘hard’ border between Gibraltar and Spain.

The deal was announced by Spanish Foreign Minister, Arancha González Laya – and later confirmed by the UK Foreign Office on 31 December 2020.

Citizens of Gibraltar – a  British Overseas Territory – had voted 96% to ‘remain’ in the EU in the 2016 referendum.  The future of the territory had been addressed in some detail in the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement – but was not included in the scope of the Brexit trade negotiations.  Instead, the EU had requested that UK and Spain negotiate a bi-lateral agreement on a ‘political framework to form the basis of a separate treaty between the UK and the EU regarding Gibraltar’.

Now – under arrangements broadly similar to Northern Ireland on the island of Ireland – Gibraltar will join the EU’s ‘Schengen’ zone – and will follow other EU single market and customs union rules for free movement of goods and services.  The ‘Rock’ is a centre for financial activity and a conduit for financial services, with many Gibraltarians and EU citizens employed in the sector.  About 15,000 Spanish workers travel there to work every day.

Pending the drafting and signing of the formal Treaty, the border will be open – allowing unfettered travel between mainland Spain and Gibraltar.

Without agreement, sales and provision of goods and services would have been hampered by the shift from ‘passporting’ to the ‘equivalence’ – as has happened to UK businesses and institutions.  Border controls would have made daily travel impossible – and the 90 in every 180 days limit on citizens would have rendered employment impractical leading to potentially thousands of job losses.

Commenting on the agreement, Ms González Laya: “the fence is removed, Schengen is applied to Gibraltar… it allows for the lifting of controls between Gibraltar and Spain.”

The EU will send ‘Frontex’ border guards to facilitate free movement to and from Gibraltar for the next four years.

Constitutionally, Gibraltarians are British citizens.  They elect their own representatives to the territory’s ‘House of Assembly’ – whilst the Queen appoints a ‘Governor’.

Home to a British military garrison and naval base, Gibraltar is self-governing in all areas apart from defence and foreign policy.

As a member of Schengen, border guards will be now required to protect the zone’s ‘external border’ – at Gibraltar’s airport and seaport.  Gibraltar joins 22 other EU states in the passport-free Schengen zone along with Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

Gibraltar businesses must continue to comply with EU fair competition rules in areas such as financial policy, the environment and the labour market.  For all practical purposes, they simply continue meeting the regulatory standards under which they have operated whilst the UK was a member state.

UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab MP on reaching the Agreement with Spain said: “We will now send this to the European Commission, in order to initiate negotiations on the formal treaty.  In the meantime, all sides are committed to mitigating the effects of the end of the Transition Period on Gibraltar, and in particular ensure border fluidity, which is clearly in the best interests of the people living on both sides.”

On the previous day, 30 December 2020, addressing House of Commons during the Brexit debate, Conservative MP, Bob Neill had reminded Parliament that the UK had a “political and moral obligation” to secure a post-Brexit deal for Gibraltar.  He said: “We gave a clear undertaking to the people of Gibraltar, who although they voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union are equally determined to remain part of the British family, that we would not leave them behind and would not leave the European Union without securing a deal for them too.”

Although it came – literally – ‘late in the day’, we welcome the continuity for Gibraltarians and Spanish co-workers in the territory.  Anything less would have been a travesty of justice and democracy.


UK-Gibraltar-Spain agreement: statement from the Foreign Secretary – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)