Spain’s government approved a decree on Tuesday regulating parts of its relationship with the citizens of the British overseas territory of Gibraltar after the Brexit transition period ends on January 1.
The measures approved by the cabinet of Spain’s socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, allow Gibraltarians to continue to hold Spanish public sector jobs, work in professions that require EU residency and study in Spanish universities, among other issues.
But the announcement comes as Madrid warns that it will toughen border checks with Gibraltar if it cannot reach a deal with the UK on free movement between Spain and the territory before the end of the transition period.
“If there is no deal, Gibraltar will become the external border of the EU. That means more checks, waiting time and costs,” Arancha González, Spain’s foreign minister, warned on Monday. “Although on a smaller scale, one of the consequences could be queues similar to the ones we have seen in Dover.”
Gibraltar was not covered by the Brexit deal struck between the EU and UK last week. Consequently, in the absence of a separate agreement, border crossings could require passport stamps, while Gibraltar residents could lose Spanish social security and other benefits.
Gibraltar is seeking closer ties with the EU than it had pre-Brexit, with almost unfettered movement between it and Spain, while Ms González said the Spanish “vision” was to “remove the border fence”. This would in effect make Gibraltar part of the Schengen free-movement area and convert Gibraltar’s airport and port into the EU frontier. But negotiations have stalled over how those entrances into the bloc will be policed — and who will do it.
Spain has 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 insists that those guards should report to Spanish authorities and that Spain, as an EU member, would be in charge of the external EU border. The Gibraltarian government, for its part, has been clear that it will not accept Spanish oversight of 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.
Ms González insisted that Spain would continue to negotiate until the “last minute” of 2020, but she warned that there was “no plan B” except for a hard border if an agreement on movement was not reached.
For his part, Gibraltar chief minister Fabian Picardo told the Financial Times: “We are remarkably close to a deal. I am optimistic. I won’t be drawn on what happens if we don’t have a deal. I will keep working to ensure we have one that is safe and beneficial for all sides.”
The threat of a hard border is a particularly acute concern 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. Any damage to the regional economy caused by a change in the way the border is policed could be devastating to them, as job prospects are scarce in the Spanish frontier area of the Campo de Gibraltar, where unemployment is close to 40 per cent.
On Monday, the mayors of the eight towns that comprise the Campo de Gibraltar demanded an “urgent and positive” deal to avoid the “dire economic, social and political consequences that a lack of agreement would entail”.