Spain and the UK have reached an agreement in principle on the free movement between the British overseas territory of Gibraltar and Spain, less than a day before the frontier would have become the only hard land border created by Brexit.
“The border gate will be lifted and controls between Gibraltar and Spain will be able to be abolished,” Arancha González Laya, Spain’s foreign minister, said on Thursday.
“We’re going to avert the worst effects of a hard Brexit,” Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar chief minister, said shortly after.
Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, said the agreement would form the basis of a separate treaty between the UK and the EU regarding Gibraltar, adding “we remain steadfast in our support for Gibraltar and its sovereignty is safeguarded”.
The agreement will in effect make Gibraltar part of the Schengen free-movement area and convert Gibraltar’s airport and port into the EU frontier. More than 90 per cent of Gibraltarians voted to remain in the EU in the Brexit referendum and since then Gibraltar has sought closer ties with the EU than it had pre-Brexit. Similarly, Ms González has said the Spanish “vision” was to “remove the border fence”.
But six months of negotiations over the free movement agreement stalled over how entrance into the Schengen zone, now to be inside the British overseas territory, would be policed.
Madrid had signalled that it would be willing to have officers from the EU border agency Frontex control passage through the airport and port as a temporary confidence-building measure, but it insisted that Spain, as an EU member, would be in charge of the external EU border. The Gibraltar government, for its part, was clear that it would not accept Spanish officials controlling its borders.
The issue is especially sensitive because of the sovereignty dispute that has continued since Gibraltar was ceded to Britain under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.
In announcing the agreement in principle, Ms González insisted that Spain would be the responsible party for the oversight of Schengen, but said that Frontex agents would assist with border controls during a four-year transition period. She declined to specify where Spanish customs and police agents would be during or after that period.
Mr Picardo insisted “people should absolutely not be concerned” that Spain’s Guardia Civil would be coming to Gibraltar.
It should take about six months to convert the deal into an EU-UK treaty, Ms González said, during which time frontier controls along the current Spain-Gibraltar border would be managed in line with Schengen regulations.
The free movement of people between the two territories is particularly important for workers in the region. About 15,000 people cross the border to work every day — most of them passing from the Spanish to the Gibraltarian side. Damage to the regional economy caused by a hard border would have devastated these workers, as job prospects are scarce in the Spanish frontier area of the Campo de Gibraltar, where unemployment is close to 40 per cent.
The New Year’s Eve deal will “pull down barriers to create a zone of shared prosperity”, Ms González said. “Without this agreement in principle, Gibraltar would have been the only location of a hard Brexit, and that concern weighed on the negotiations.”
Mr Picardo said: “This has not been easy, and we have gone to the wire. In fact I think we felt the wire cutting into our flesh as we finalised the agreement.”