The European Commission will next week put forward a mandate to negotiate a post-Brexit relationship with Gibraltar that would bring Frontex agents to its territory to avoid a hard border with Spain.
Gibraltar is a British overseas territory located at the southern tip of Spain. Madrid and London reached a preliminary agreement on 31 December 2020, hours before the UK left the European Union, to keep the Gibraltar land border open.
The goal – by keeping Gibraltar in the EU’s passport-free Schengen area – was to avoid a hard border that would affect almost 10,000 Spanish workers who cross daily from Spain and represent a vital pillar of the Rock’s economy.
Once endorsed by the Council, the mandate will kick off negotiations between the EU and the UK to agree on a treaty to cover the British overseas territory, and exclude it from the EU-UK post-Brexit bill.
The two sides had initially hoped to sign the new treaty by June. After various delays, the mandate was planned for this week but was again postponed for next week, probably for 20 July, although the exact day is not confirmed yet, EU sources told EURACTIV.com.
The mandate would be based on the December agreement between Spain and the UK.
The deal moved the EU border to Gibraltar’s port and airport. As a result, both governments agreed that EU border agents (Frontex) will be responsible for border controls during an implementing period of four years, but Spain will oversee their activities.
However, the exact role of the Spanish authorities during this period, and especially after the implementation period, is not clear.
The Spanish foreign ministry said Frontex agents would “assist” the Spanish authorities during the implementation period. Some government sources went further to say that Spanish agents would take over border control at Gibraltar’s port and airport after four years.
The December agreement needs to be translated into a EU-UK treaty, as the European Commission is responsible for the borderless Schengen space.
In a response to a European Parliament question in June, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Spain and the UK “have transmitted to the Commission a non-paper setting out this agreed framework, together with a request to initiate the procedure for the negotiation of an EU-UK agreement on Gibraltar.”
“Any EU-UK agreement on Gibraltar has to be compatible with EC law, including the Protocol on Gibraltar of the Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom, and should also be compatible with the Union’s interests,” she added in her written reply dated 28 June.
A proposal to leave in Spanish hands the control of British passports in Gibraltar could create more friction in the already tense relation between Brussels and London, following a clash over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Brexit bill.
Gibraltar’s chief minister Fabian Picardo said the mandate will be the “EU’s opening position”.
“To an extent, what we will all have to keep in mind is that all that will endure is what the final Treaty looks like and what it says and not when or what the mandate from the EU provides for,” he wrote in a statement published on 1 July.
Ahead of the Brexit talks, Spain secured veto rights over the implementation of any future EU-UK agreement in Gibraltar, whose sovereignty continues to be disputed between Madrid and London.
The December agreement between Spain and the UK excluded the contentious issue of the sovereignty of the Rock.
The new treaty is also expected to align Gibraltar with the EU’s customs area and its environmental and labour rules. In addition, Spain and the UK signed a treaty that will enable Madrid to remove the Rock from its list of ‘tax havens’.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]