The British and Spanish foreign ministers sought to highlight a renewed drive toward an ‘ad hoc’ dialogue on Gibraltar this week, but in doing so drew firm red lines that signaled just how difficult that task will prove. The coordinated message was positive and hinted at the possibility of talks ‘in the near future’ if a format could be agreed. But on core issues, there was no change.
According to a report from the Gibraltar Chronicle Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, made clear that the UK would not engage in bilateral discussion with Spain over Gibraltar against the wishes of the Gibraltarians.
In contrast, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, the Spanish Foreign Minister, urged the UK to take up bilateral sovereignty negotiations with Spain over Gibraltar “with the minimum delay possible”.
FCO Hammond restated the UK and Gibraltar’s concern about persistent delays at the border and incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters, as well as Spain’s efforts to exclude the Rock from EU aviation agreements.
He said the UK and Gibraltar were “strongly committed” to a return to trilateral dialogue, something which Spain has already ruled out and which the Spanish minister reiterated.
For his part García-Margallo repeated Spain’s concerns about taxation, the environment and tobacco smuggling, which he said remained a problem.
The Spanish minister said there would be no reduction in border controls because these were ‘proving effective’, although he added that flows of contraband had shifted from land to sea.
On aviation, García-Margallo said his government had proposed a suspension clause that would exclude Gibraltar from European agreements and free up important EU legislation that was mired on this issue.
The UK minister, in response, made clear that this was “completely unacceptable” to both Britain and Gibraltar.
However Gibraltar was but a small add-on in a far wider agenda for discussion dominated by pressing international issues including EU reform, the crisis in Ukraine and the threat of Islamist terrorism.
Speaking at the British Embassy in Madrid after the meeting, Hammond underscored the message he had delivered to the Spanish foreign minister and sought to reassure the Gibraltarian community.
“There was a bilateral discussion today, but it was about the European Union, about Russia and Ukraine, about the fight against ISIL and extremist Islamist terrorism,” he said.
“Of course we touched on Gibraltar issues. I had to raise those issues because they are of continuing concern to us.”
“But the Spanish foreign minister understands very well our commitment not to enter into any bilateral negotiations with Spain on Gibraltar.”
“We remain strongly committed to the trilateral forum and until we get back to the trilateral forum, the only talks that there will be will be the ad hoc talks.”
He added: “I hope that we can make progress to a point where we are able to sit down and have ad hoc talks in the not too distant future.”
The meeting in Madrid came after of tension during which García-Margallo revealed plans to close the Instituto Cervantes in Gibraltar and said that Spain did not recognize the office of Chief Minister or Gibraltar’s Constitution.
Asked how constructive dialogue was possible against that background, Mr Hammond appeared undeterred.
“The whole point about the proposed ad hoc talks is that they are absolutely compatible with a complete disagreement on constitutional questions,” he told the Chronicle.
“The whole idea of them is to set aside the constitutional issues and to talk about practical things that will affect the lives and livelihoods of Gibraltarians and people living in the area of Spain immediately adjacent to Gibraltar.”
“I think it is in everyone’s interest that we try and lower the tensions at the border, we try and make practical solutions to better collaboration where we can, without bringing into question any of the issues around sovereignty and territoriality.”
The Chronicle points out that their reporter was only allowed to the media conference in Madrid at last moment when it came clear to the Spanish press that the Foreign ministry was against giving the Gibraltar daily clearance to attend. Apparently the ministry wanted the Chronicle to register as foreign correspondent in La Moncloa.