Gibraltar eyes joining Schengen to ease post-Brexit border fears

File photo. Members of Gibraltar's government receive EU officers as they arrive at Gibraltar, 2 July 2014. [A. Carrasco Ragel/EPA/EFE]

Gibraltar is considering becoming part of the Schengen zone as a way of ensuring fluidity of movement on its border with Spain after Britain leaves the European Union, its Chief Minister Fabian Picardo has said.

His remarks, made in an interview with AFP on Friday (17 January), came just two weeks before Britain and Gibraltar formerly leave the bloc and enter into an 11-month period of intense negotiations to thrash out the details of their future relationship.

And for Gibraltar, a tiny British enclave at the southernmost tip of Spain, arrangements along its lone border post — which counts more than 28,000 crossings every day — will be central to talks when the so-called transition period begins on 1 February.

“We talked about this issue before Brexit… about Gibraltar becoming part of the Schengen zone,” Picardo said, referring to a passport-free zone where people can move freely across the internal borders of the 26 member states, four of whom are not part of the EU (Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia).

Britain is one of six EU nations that are not part of Schengen, but if Gibraltar were to join, it would be “a positive step”, Picardo said.

Non-EU Schengen members are Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.

“Does it make sense for the EU that 2.5 square miles (6.2 square kilometres) at the southernmost tip of Iberia should not be accessible to EU citizens? I don’t think it does”, he added.

A strategic port on at the mouth of the Mediterranean, Gibraltar provides a lifeline for some 14,000 workers who cross in and out every day, the vast majority from the impoverished Spanish city of La Linea which flanks the enclave.

That number also includes around 2,500 British nationals who live in Spain where property is cheaper.

“We need to look very carefully at how we calibrate that going forward,” he said, stressing the crucial importance of having a “fluid frontier” Gibraltar and the rest of the bloc.

“If you look at other microstates in Europe, they take the benefit of common travel areas with Schengen, even if they’re not entirely part of the Schengen information system,” he said in an apparent reference to Lichtenstein, which is one of the four non-EU member states.

“There is the ability to move fluidly between the territories of the EU and these microstates,” Picardo said.

“All of these things will be considered in the context of the negotiations going forward.”

Microstates Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City are not members of the Schengen area, but have open borders with the area.

A sensitive pressure point

Picardo also dismissed concerns that Spain would have the upper hand if it wanted to exert political pressure by stepping up checks and choking the border after Brexit, when neither Britain nor Gibraltar could rely on EU intervention.

In 2013, a dispute over an artificial reef in waters claimed by both sides sparked a war of words that triggered months of gridlock at the border after Spain intensified checks, which only ended when Brussels stepped in.

“Any EU citizen crossing the border will still have recourse to the Commission or the European court if there are disproportionate delays,” Picardo insisted.

“Management of that frontier, which is in the hands of Spain, must be in keeping with European rules because this is… access to the European Schengen zone.”

Although Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713, Madrid has long wanted it back in a thorny dispute that has for decades involved pressure on the frontier.

Tensions peaked in 1969 when the regime of dictator Francisco Franco shut down the border which did not fully reopen until 1985.

“If you think where we were in our relationship with Spain 100 years ago, we were in a better place perhaps than we are today,” Picardo remarked, saying that Franco had repeatedly used the border as a pressure point and successive Spanish governments had traditionally done the same.

“Putting pressure at the frontier does not tend to persuade the people of Gibraltar that we’ve ever been wrong about wanting to remain entirely British.”

In recent years, notably since Britain’s shock vote to leave the EU in 2016, there had been “a shift in the traditional position” of Spain regarding Gibraltar, Picardo said, expressing optimism about the prospect of dealing with the new leftwing coalition government in Madrid.

One of a number of “very positive” developments was a remark by Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez who expressed a desire “to look beyond the eternal issue of sovereignty to understand how we could improve the economics of the region”.

Gibraltar plays an important role in the economy of the adjacent area of Spain known as “El Campo de Gibraltar”, which has one of the European Union’s highest jobless rates.

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