It came down to the wire, but Spain and the UK managed to finalise a Schengen agreement for Gibraltar before Brexit came into force on 1 January.
The deal means Gibraltar will join the European Union’s Schengen area, thus maintaining free movement across the Spanish border, and also follow other EU rules – while officially remaining a British Overseas Territory.
Six days earlier, on 24 December, after the announcement of a trade deal between the UK and the EU, Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said, “it is a huge relief given the potential difficulties that a no-deal Brexit might have created for the United Kingdom and the European Union. A strong United Kingdom is better able to support Gibraltar.”
He stressed, however, that the deal did not cover Gibraltar. “For us, and for the people of the Campo de Gibraltar around us, the clock is still ticking. We continue to work, hand in glove with the United Kingdom, to finalise negotiation with Spain of agreement for a proposed treaty between the EU and the UK in relation to Gibraltar. I am optimistic that we will be able to finalise that agreement.”
His optimism was well-founded, albeit at the 11th hour. On New Year’s Eve, Picardo confirmed an “in-principle” agreement had been reached. In an address to Gibraltarians, he said, “We can look forward with expectation and hope. We believe we may now be able to reset our relationship with Spain and cast it in a more positive light going forward.
“The agreement is for a proposed framework for a UK/European Union agreement or treaty on Gibraltar’s future relationship with the EU. That agreement will govern the relationship between Gibraltar and the European Union in areas of EU competence.
“As we have been seeking to do, the treaty to be negotiated will deal with maximised and unrestricted mobility of persons between Gibraltar and the Schengen area. Spain, as the neighbouring Schengen member state, will be responsible as regards the European Union for the implementation of Schengen. This will be managed by the introduction of a FRONTEX (EU border guards) operation for the control of entry and exit points from the Schengen area at the Gibraltar entry points.”
The plan is for these arrangements to be provided for an initial period of four years. The agreement also aims to “seek to address maximised and unrestricted mobility of goods between Gibraltar and the European Union”.
The deal was formally announced by Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya, barely hours before the UK exited the EU. “With this (agreement), the fence is removed,” she said. “Schengen is applied to Gibraltar.” The territory will also be required to comply with EU fair competition rules in areas such as financial policy, the environment and the labour market.
Schengen covers 26 European countries (22 in the EU plus Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein) that have officially abolished all passport and other types of controls at their mutual borders.
Ms González Laya did not clarify if Spanish border guards would eventually be posted at Gibraltar’s airport and/or seaport, both of which – under the deal – will be de facto areas of the EU’s external border.
In accordance with the terms of the agreement, EU citizens arriving from Spain or another Schengen country will avoid passport checks, but arrivals from the UK will still have to go through passport control.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described the deal as a “political framework” to form the basis of a separate treaty to be finalised with the EU regarding Gibraltar after a six-month transition period. It does not address the issue of sovereignty, which Spain has disputed since Gibraltar was ceded to Britain in 1713.