Why tensions are rising over the Gibraltar border

Foreign secretary claims new post-Brexit proposal undermines UK’s sovereignty over territory

Cars queue to enter Gibraltar
Cars queue to enter Gibraltar
(Image credit: Carlos Gil/Getty Images)

Clashes between the UK and the EU over Gibraltar’s border arrangements in the wake of Brexit have led to uncertainty over the future of the long-disputed territory.

On Tuesday, the European Commission published a draft mandate outlining the territory’s post-Brexit border regulations. Controversially, the proposal calls for Spanish border guards to have “all necessary powers and obligations to carry out the border controls and surveillance” and to “take responsibility for all checks on people arriving at Gibraltar port and airport”, The Times reports.

The mandate also puts Spain in charge of issuing visas, stating that UK nationals (other than residents of Gibraltar) “would be treated as third country nationals for the purposes of entry and stay in Gibraltar”, says Spanish newspaper El Pais. Currently British nationals don’t need a visa to enter Gibraltar.

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A Foreign Office source told The Telegraph that allowing the Spanish government to enforce the border would amount to “Spanish boots on the ground” in Gibraltar and would be rejected by Westminster. Sovereignty over the British overseas territory, which has a population of just 32,000, has long been disputed by Spain and the UK, its location just 12 miles from the coast of north Africa making it strategically important to both nations.

In a statement acquired by the BBC, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that he was “disappointed” that the UK’s consistent “pragmatism and flexibility in the search for arrangements that work for all sides” had not been reciprocated. He added that the proposed mandate “seeks to undermine the UK’s sovereignty over Gibraltar, and cannot form a basis for negotiations”.

The European Commission’s latest proposal rows back on a provisional agreement made by the UK, Spain and Gibraltar last year, which agreed that the EU would take responsibility for border crossing points into Gibraltar, manned by Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.

This “framework deal” had been designed “to allow the territory in effect to enter into the EU’s Schengen free-movement area”, says The Times, which allows citizens to move freely without border checks in most EU countries and other non-EU states including Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Giving Gibraltar Schengen status “is seen as critical for its economy”, the newspaper adds.

“If the UK, Spain and Gibraltar” agreed on these arrangements last year, then “why the hell is the EU trying to undermine us and create this mess?” the unnamed Foreign Office source asked The Telegraph.

Some Whitehall figures interpreted the release of the European Commission’s draft mandate as “an attempt by Brussels to gain leverage for talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol”, the newspaper reports. The proposal came one day before Brexit minister Lord Frost demanded “significant” changes to Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements.

The European Council must sign off the draft mandate before the EU can launch negotiations with the UK, says Politico.